Positive Thinking Has No Power…But…

October 14, 2011

You know, I’ve been thinking about something.

A lot of days here on the blog, I try to take on some controversial topic.  That usually involves some kind of debate, criticism, or general negativity.  That’s kind of the way it is.  You can’t talk about controversial things without taking a side and being negative toward the other side.

But contrary to what you may think, I’m actually an incredibly positive person…

…Like, excessively positive.  Unreasonably positive.  Eerily positive.

Okay, I’m not like Rob Lowe’s character from Parks and Recreation or Kenneth from 30 Rock.  I’m negative about some things.

I can even be negative about positivity.  Like how it’s been co-opted by self-help gurus and Joel Osteen types to make weak-minded people believe they can do anything just by thinking positively.  I hate that positive thinking has been tarnished like that.

But, when I go to work, and I’m bombarded by dozens of screaming children, all wanting my attention, positivity really is the only approach you can have and stay sane.

Here’s why…

Plausible Deniability

I’ll admit, part of my unflagging positivity is a defense mechanism.  If I just stay positive, then no matter what’s happening, I can just tell myself that life is okay.  I told you, I’m almost too positive.  But while I choose to willfully stay happy even when my ship is sinking, some of you out there are punching holes in your ship because you already believe it’s sinking.

Right Back at You

One of the most toxic things about working with people is the ability for complaining and negativity to infect the whole place.  One person sees a minor irritation.  He starts complaining to someone, who has their own little gripe.  Pretty soon, everyone has validated each other’s complaints, making everyone feel that their minor problem is a major problem.

I’ve even been encouraged by co-workers to complain to the boss.  And that’s one piece of advice I almost never take.  Why?  Because what does complaining say about me?  That I can’t solve my own problems, that I need more managing, that I’m not a leader?  Leaders don’t make complaints, they get paid to listen to complaints.

You want to get ahead at your job?  Quit complaining about it.

I’m Just Better Than You

I know this is shallow, but being positive has the direct result of making everyone think your life is way, way better than it is.  When most people are asked about their workday or their weekend, they might say something positive, but they’ll usually temper it with something negative too.  I don’t know why.  Do people default to “pity” mode?  I had a co-worker whom, on Monday I would ask how his weekend was.  He answered every Monday, “Not long enough.”  I stopped asking.  He had the same 48 hour period I did.  If he’s not reaching his full potential in that time as a lazy sad sack, what do I care?

Guess what?  Most people don’t really care about whatever it is you’re tempted to complain about.  So why bring it up?  Why not just keep it to yourself and let others believe your life is way better than their own?

Stay Away!

This is a fact: no one likes to be around negative people…except maybe other negative people.  Even Debbie Downers need friends.  But I suspect that negative people even drive their friends away.

Look, people have their own crap to deal with.  They can’t deal with yours too.  So unless you have cancer, are getting divorced, or you’re flat broke, try being more interested in other peoples’ problems.  People like to be encouraged by positive people when they’re feeling down, not people who try to one-up their sob story with their own tales of woe.

So that’s me.  Positive thinking probably doesn’t have any power to make impossible things happen.  But it can help you to care less about impossible things.  But maybe I’m naive and nice, positive guys really do finish last.  What do you think?  Are you generally positive, or generally a negative person?  And if you’re a negative person, just own up to it.  Don’t call yourself a “realist.”

18 responses to Positive Thinking Has No Power…But…

  1. Your last line made me laugh since I’ve always referred to myself as a realist above all else. But yeah, that tends to be the fancy cover-up way of saying I’m often negative about life.

  2. I definitely try to stay positive and give thanks to God in all circumstances, looking for some good to come out of everything somehow. We have no control of some things that happen, but we can control our reaction to it. I always try to be positive in the work place too.

  3. I am definitely a positive person and consider anyone who calls themselves a realist a pessimist.

    Have you ever read “How Full is Your Bucket?” It is a short, easy, and fascinating read about the effects of positivity and negativity in the workplace. They have decades of research to cite, and demonstrate the dollar amount negativity in the workplace costs companies, the effects of negativity on marriages, and even talk about how negativity literally killed people in a Korean war camp.

    The bottom line is, when you encourage others, it makes both you and the encouragee feel better and work more effectively. When you complain and are negative, it brings you and everyone around you down. Great read!

  4. Hmmm… I think I’m positive about your stuff and negative about my own. The fact that I’ve suffered from major depression for most of my life leaves me confused. The depression is not the sum total of me, but it does color my outlook. I would be lying to say otherwise. I can encourage very well and believe God for everything I’m saying. I do have a very hard time believing for myself, though. Embedded remnants of some bad, bad teaching from my youth, I think.

  5. I love Mark Batterson’s line, “Your focus determines your reality” Not in a Pollyanna rose-colored-glasses kind of way, but in the way that right-sizes your problems in light of God’s character.

  6. Good blog, Matt!

    As a parent I found my kids felt entitled to more and more stuff. I took them on a shopping spree at the mall followed by a trip through the worst section of Boston (which is nothing compared to what I saw in Brazil and in places in the Caribbean!). It got their attention!

    I think that hardest thing for me to be positive about is rush hour, I admit. 1 hour = 14 miles. No one wants to hear about it.

    On the other hand, few have gone through what I have in the last 6 months between finances, health, as a parent, and my relationship with my wife. You are right, no one cares – well God does. In my hospital bed I contiuned to work on our training center at church – sure, it slowed me down and we had to cancel some things. As soon as I was able, I took on small responsibilites for my wife even though I couldn’t work.

    The Bible says “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) Our internal dialog is a lot worse for us than what we say. The other problem is what we say to our circumstances. “This will never work,” I’d say you are correct 100% of the time. “I will never be…” again, you’d be 100% correct.

    The problem is our desires are most often shaped by our culture, and not God. Even when we suffer life-threatening circumstances, there is always heaven to look forward too. When we get really real with God, he shapes the desires of our heart and fulfils them as we are able to handle them. There are a lot of things I thought I wanted until I had them. The one thing that I love is serving God with my gifts; those are my true desires.

    The day-to-day complaining about work is small potatoes compared to shipwrecking our God-ordained destiny by never really knowing Him, and his desire for us – his very pesonalized desire for us.

  7. I tend to be more positive than negative, though I may be more in the middle.

    My husband is on the more negative (“realistic”) side, so I think we actually balance well in this aspect.

    Though it swaps around when it comes to my abilities–he’s overly optimistic about me accomplishing my dreams, while I tend to be pretty pessimistic.

  8. This is going to sound goofy, but your post reminded me of this episode of Oprah that I saw once.

    It had something to do with “what makes people survivors”–they were talking about folks that survived crazy circumstances like being lost out in the woods or trapped under rocks and such. And the psychologist guy on there said that what all these people had in common was a tendency to think positively.

    Oprah actually set up sort of a sneaky demonstration of this–she had a hidden camera at the desk where people would pick up their tickets to the show, and then random people were told that the tickets that they had reserved were lost. So, naturally, some people had complete hissy fits and threw a fuss and demanded to speak to a manager. But there were a few that, while obviously disappointed, just said something like “Well, we’re still all in Chicago, let’s go find something else to do.”

    According to guy on Oprah it’s that “well, this situation sucks but how can I make the best of it?” attitude that helps someone get through a lot of difficulties. It’s not a matter of being naive, it’s a survival instinct.

  9. I admit it–I grew up tending to see the negative side of things, and I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. Now I’m fighting it. I WANT to be positive. I’ve given my family permission to call me on my negativity, and it’s helping. Plus Pete is the most optimistic person I know. (You should compare notes sometime!)

    One day I woke up and realized that complaining about life is telling God that He doesn’t know what He’s doing, and that I could do a better job of running things. That shut me up in a hurry!

  10. I wrote a piece a while ago in which I had hoped to foster an attitude of contentment, as opposed to living perpetually in a mode of discontent. You would be surprised at the flak I caught. If it were not for “discontent” we would not have modern electronics, modern transportation, modern medicine, etc., etc. Guess we should have more gratitude for grumpy people who cannot be satisfied?!

  11. I would rather refer to myself as “positively negative”. Kidding. I tend to go both ways on this one.

  12. We said. One of the secrets of joy is to promote the joy of others. This mindset is filled with grace and the opposite of complaining. Here is a post I wrote: http://www.historyandtheology.com/?p=1505

    Moreover, if positive thinking is rooted in the gospel, there is a reality behind it. And with this grace, you are able to do all thing, such as suffer well and not complain!

  13. I am a very positive person and it drives me nuts that my husband is a “glass half empty” person. I just don’t understand how folks can live that way. Glad to see that I’m not the only one. :)