July 12, 2019

How we Deceive ourselves with Positive Thinking.

Is it possible that we can be too earnest about happiness for our own good?

And can all the positive thinking we do actually get in our way?

Positive thinking “requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block unpleasant possibilities and ‘negative’ thoughts,” at least according to Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.

I have a conflicted relationship with positive thinking, and here is my alternative approach that may help.

My family’s motto, if we had had one, would have been, “Always look on the dark side of life.” Nobody in my family repressed their negative thoughts.

My father taught us, “Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.” He was rarely disappointed. Mostly, he had the satisfaction of being deeply disenchanted with his fellow men and women.

That worked for him. However, it did not work for me, and neither did relentless positivity.

I belong to that body of people who refuse to deny their feelings. Telling myself how good “things” were coming my way when I was in a black hole of misery felt alien and false. So, I learned that a one-size-fits-all approach to feeling good was never going to work for me.

Realizing that our outlook and belief systems are aggravating our unhappiness doesn’t mean that we can just change it at will.

Consequently, as an adult, I have spent a lot of years working on melding positive and negative thinking into a cocktail that felt authentic enough to work for me—and other people.

My approach, in tough times, was to “look for the gift in the situation.” With this thought, I was going in the right direction, and then, I encountered Pollyanna. Her way, it transpires, is more viable, inclusive, and fun.

Pollyanna just loved to have fun. Most adults, also, seem to love to have fun because between acting like a grown-up, positive thinking, and the preoccupation with getting things right, most adults have a marked fun deficit in their daily lives. Being more like Pollyanna can help with that, too.

In fact, the story of Pollyanna shows how much pleasure and benefits adults derive from being more like Pollyanna and playing “The Glad Game.”

Having experienced bereavement, poverty, and deprivation, Pollyanna played “The Glad Game because,

“when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind”—the bad kind of things.

In other words, shifting our focus allows us to experience a better-feeling feeling.

“The Glad Game” gifts lay in accepting reality, but still enjoying whatever that could be found to enjoy. Pollyanna simply practised refocusing her mind without denial.

These six simple steps allow us to play “The Glad Game” and be more like Pollyanna:

  1. Accept the reality of the situation. It always helps to start from where you are rather than where you might like to be. However, there is a gulf that divides accepting the truth of a tough situation from dwelling on the tragedy of it.
  1. Acknowledge your sad feelings but don’t wallow in them. Sad feelings, bad feelings, hurt feelings, and negative feelings are all telling you something important: you are hurting. Accept totally that you have every reason to feel that way—whether what happened to cause those feelings happened five minutes or 40 years ago. It hurt you. That matters. You can acknowledge those hurt feelings without constantly revisiting the hurtful scenario.
  1. Simply observe. Pollyanna excelled at sticking to the facts, without constructing a victim narrative. She registered how people behaved (toward her) without interpreting it as a statement of her own worthiness or lovableness. She simply observed. She knew that people do what they do for their own good reasons.
  1. Focus on you. Pollyanna did not always get her ideal response from other people. She had her share of disappointments. She could have experienced her share of rejections, too—if that was what she had focused on. That was not her way. Instead, she looked for whatever she could find to be glad about. So, she never put her own happiness at the mercy of other people’s behavior. 
  1. Rinse and repeat. Even for Pollyanna, “The Glad Game” was not always easy. She became good at it because she had plenty of practice. Practice makes proficient—to the point where she often played on automatic pilot. 
  1. Do as much of what makes you happy as possible. Pollyanna was a creative child who excelled at finding the wiggle-room in a situation. In the end, she could always find the viable option for getting the most enjoyment out of a challenging situation—even if she struggled badly along the way.

“Most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about if you keep hunting long enough to find it,” according to Pollyanna. I have to agree. Following these six steps has worked wonders for this ex-priestess of negativity, me.

On Pollyanna’s behalf, I invite you, too, to play “The Glad Game.” After all, if your life is currently painful because, for whatever reason, it is not how you would like it to be, what would you lose by being more Pollyannaish? And, what could you gain?


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