“Think good thoughts.”
“It takes more muscles to frown than to smile.”
We often hear these expressions about optimism but are they a little overrated?
A positive mindset is a great thing to have but you can run the risk of using optimism as a shield against the reality of the world. If you use optimism to mask your feelings and the truth, it can become a security blanket.
I think optimism also runs the risk of making us passive. We can be optimistic that a situation will turn around but not take enough action to influence and change that situation.
I know that optimism only helped me so much in a job I hated. I was hoping for things to change, daydreaming about the day that I would land a new job and finally walk away.
But I couldn’t hold out any longer.
Confronting my harsh reality was hard but it was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. When I faced the reality of my situation and realized it wasn’t going to change — at least not any time soon — I finally made the decision to take action by leaving and exploring another path.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor E. Frankl
Taking action put the balance of power back in my hands. It was only after I was out of that negative situation that I was able to create a more optimistic outlook on life.
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This is why I think positivity alone doesn’t work. But when it’s paired with a solid plan of action, it becomes something very powerful.
Here are the reasons why I think positive thinking is overrated.
Positive Affirmations Don’t Always Work
Some people believe very strongly in the power of positive affirmations but research from the Journal of Psychological Science shows that they don’t work for people with low self-esteem — and that they can even make some people feel worse.
Carmen Isáis, an emotional resiliency coach, explains how she gets her clients to use neutral statements before using positive ones. She explains that by using neutral statements, you’re basing your statements in reality and readjusting those negative thoughts first before moving onto more positive statements.
“It is always the false that makes you suffer, the false desires and fears, the false values and ideas, the false relationships between people. Abandon the false and you are free of pain; truth makes you happy, truth liberates.” -Nisardagatta Maharaj
I myself have seen the benefits in using more neutral statements. With them, I can face the truth but also acknowledge that I and my circumstances can be changed. It takes you out of a fixed mindset and into one of growth.
Whenever I used positive affirmations, I didn’t truly believe them and they felt like empty words.
But using neutral statements has made me feel more optimistic and more capable.
To me, neutral statements are a much more realistic and beneficial way of thinking.
The Truth Hurts, But False Hope Hurts Even More
I’ve learned over the years how to be less of a dreamer and more of a doer, and it has changed my demeanor somewhat.
I used to be the person who’d always smile, no matter how I felt. I’d bury my feelings of anger, sadness or disappointment with a cheery smile, telling myself that everything would be all right if I just kept being positive.
I’d get lost in my starry-eyed daydreams of what my life could look like rather than looking at my present circumstances and figuring out how I could change them. It’s great to dream but we can’t get lost in that dreamworld.
“Harsh reality is always better than false hope.” -Julian Fellowes
What I didn’t realize was that I was keeping myself locked in a cycle of pain because my misplaced optimism was keeping me stagnant and unmoving. I wasn’t doing anything to change or influence my life. The truth can hurt but avoiding the truth hurts even more.
Proactivity Makes You More Positive
I’ve been learning about the power of proactivity from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The very first habit is all about being proactive and gets you to take a very action-oriented approach to life.
In being proactive, Covey talks about the Circle of Concern vs. the Circle of Influence. Things in your Circle of Concern are factors you can’t control like the weather or national debt. In contrast, the factors in your Circle of Influence are the things which you can control such as your own habits or behaviour.
He gets you to ask yourself:
What’s outside of my control?
What can I do to influence my situation?
Through this exercise, you learn that there’s a lot of things you can’t control. But you also realize that you have more power than you think.
I may not be able to influence the job market or callbacks but I am able to influence my own habits and behaviours. It got me asking: what can I do to exert influence over my situation? What can I do to change things? What can I do that will contribute to my learning and growth? What can I do to become a stronger candidate?
It isn’t positivity that’s made me happier. Being proactive makes me feel more in control and in turn makes me more productive because I’m now focusing my energy on what I can change. I’m happier — not so much about my situation but about my reaction to my situation. I’m trading reactiveness for proactiveness.
Since implementing proactivity into my life, I’ve gained a greater sense of satisfaction and meaning in the work I do.
Whether I’m watching LinkedIn courses, working on my novel or learning a new skill such as French, I’m thinking about it in terms of how it’s going to help me.
Learning from LinkedIn courses will make me a more knowledgeable job seeker who can offer more to companies.
Working on my novel will bring me that much closer to creating a publishable piece of work.
Becoming a more fluent French speaker will open up opportunities for me, both in my personal and working life.
By acknowledging the truth, thinking in a more neutral way and taking purposeful action, you’re likely to be even happier than before because you’re taking steps to approach your goals in a realistic but proactive way.