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The Positive Thinking Debate

Posted by admin on July 20, 2012

Or 'Say "Yes!" to Mister In-Between?'

Positive thinking has come under fire recently. Twitter comments show that one book in particular has caught the imagination of those whose personalities and way of living are not geared to evangelical positivism. The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman starts off at an American event called ‘Get Motivated’. It is not a million miles away from a Billy Graham gathering of the sixties, except that instead of religion being advocated, it’s positive thinking. Yes, this attitude is now godly!  Anyone not adhering to it is an infidel and will be cast into the everlasting fire.  In the US banking fraternity, not to be positive is seen as defeatist – you just wouldn’t dare to say, ‘um, isn’t that investment strategy a bit risky for the client?’ – oh, you hopeless naysayer, you, you are banned from our drinking games forthwith and will be held upside down in the toilet!’ And most of us will have an opinion as to how banking has arrogantly and conclusively defeated governmental attempts at control and public opinion to the detriment of contemporary society – or not.

To those snug in their Anglo-Saxon mental space this ‘Get Motivated’ sort of event is anathema, whether or not they class themselves as extreme positive thinkers. Who wants to ‘ra ra, woop!’ for no particular reason, in public and en masse? Not many British, that’s for sure, probably not many Europeans or Americans in fact and – I know this is controversial - not many people with an averagely high IQ and reasonably OK self-esteem. Yet, the stadium was full on the night Burkeman was there, and the NLP guru, Tony Robbins, attracts a very mixed and enthusiastic crowd.  So I must be wrong.

The alternative attitude described by Burkeman is a version of Stoicism with a good dollop of Buddhism. Being accepting of how things turn out, knowing that the worst that can happen is probably not that awful, or at least not catastrophic, or life-threatening, and so can be borne with calm serenity, is a possible key to a happier life. One point I particularly liked - it is our desperation to be more and more secure in a world where sands are constantly shifting, that actually makes us insecure.  Trying to hold on to our ‘stuff’ and our position makes us anxious and fearful.

Small nudges in a positive direction

I like to be a thinking partner to my clients, and I know which people I can encourage to be more positive because underneath the apparent Eeyore is a Tigger waiting to jump out. I can also identify those who find it extremely hard to respond to a question such as, ‘so, what might be the positive benefits of being made redundant?’  Say this at the wrong time, and it is insulting and insensitive.  At the right time, though, and put in a way that suits that individual, it can be a trigger to a new way of looking at life.  I don’t act ‘get motivated’ all the time with everyone; I adapt to suit my clients’ ways of being, and help them work with that to feel good. Small and acceptable nudges to help people find their equilibrium, peace, happiness – that’s what works in my view.

Being human

I think it's OK to laugh in the morning, feel peaceful and contented on a morning walk or run, be present and focused at work, cry in the evening at a moving TV programmeand feel an overwhelming desire to snarl at a cold caller who rings when you've just sat down to dinner.  I can’t see much wrong with that because this is what Western life is like. It is funny and sad, sometimes deeply annoying and stupid, and has moments of peaceful happiness or utter joy when you are thankful just to be alive.


In the Emotional Intelligence survey my clients sometimes complete, there are several  ‘bi-polar’ scales where you can have too much and too little of a particular attribute. On the ‘Balanced Outlook’ scale there are three scoring areas: ‘Over Optimistic’, ‘Realistically Optimistic’ and ‘Over Pessimistic’. Interestingly, many people with very high scores on ‘Over Optimistic’ are also high scorers on ‘Over Pessimistic’. That’s Odd?  It’s because those people who are always wildly positive and expect things to turn out fantastically because of their efforts, become become deeply disillusioned if and when that goal is not reached.  Then, in the words of the song discussed below,  ‘pandemonium’s liable to walk upon the scene.’  Following this period of depression, such brave souls pull themselves out of the negative thought with an Andy Murray fisty gesture and a growl of  ‘come ON’ and off they go again to take their sales figures to the sky by the sheer willpower. It’s the yo-yo effect. Being Realistically Optimistic, on the other hand, using checks and balances before setting off on an ambitious path, helps here and is considered the emotionally intelligent attitude.

Personality and experience are the keys when it comes to being positive, negative, cynical, accepting or serene about life’s events. What you can do is tweak your attitudes, whatever they are, to serve you better and smooth your path to a more comfortable life, whatever that means for you.

Take a look at this YouTube scene from Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKrC9Tu8gpo   Michael Gambon (as Philip Marlow, the eponymous hero), in hospital with an acute attack of psoriasis, imagines an evangelical choir pitching up on his ward to sing a joyful version of the famous Bing Crosby song, 'Accentuate the Positive'. At the end of the scene, Philip whispers to himself, ‘OK, bring it on, the pandemonium.’ As you will see, he is making a choice and it isn’t about getting motivated. But that suits his way of being, and his psoriasis retreats and he gets better anyway in the end. Here are the lyrics, so you can sing along to the clip, and I challenge anyone watching this not to jig around in their chair and feel a lot better about everything, whether they are super positive thinkers, Stoics, Buddhists, mums, dads and/or CEOs.  I do think, however, that ‘Mister In-Between’ might have something going for him.

Accentuate the Positive (in moderation!)

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium's                                                                                                          
Liable to walk upon the scene

To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the Whale, Noah in the Ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dire?
Man, they said, we’d better...
Accentuate the positive...

Edwina Biucchi, edwina.biucchi@impronta.co.uk