Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Don't Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I remember it well. I was in fourth, maybe fifth grade. While I didn't always exert myself in school, this time I decided to study like nobody's business. I sat over the books, and really pounded the material into my brain. I returned the test paper with a dramatic flourish, knowing that I had aced it. 

I got a 67. I was crushed. 

From that day forward, I told myself, I would keep my expectations in check. I couldn't handle the letdown. 

"Oh no," some hippy will chirp at me. "You must always think positive." 

"I'm not against being positive," I respond. "But I'm more for being realistic." 
Oliver Burkeman discusses this in his article, "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking." 
According to research . . . visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it . . . Or take affirmations, those cheery slogans intended to lift the user’s mood by repeating them: “I am a lovable person!” “My life is filled with joy!” Psychologists . . . concluded that such statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse . . . Even goal setting . . . isn’t an undisputed boon. Fixating too vigorously on goals can distort an organization’s overall mission in a desperate effort to meet some overly narrow target . . . employees consumed with goals are likelier to cut ethical corners. 
The mindset of those who lived way-back-when, before modern medicine and deep freezers, preferred the path of the "OMG, OMG, we're all gonna die." 
The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.  
Focusing on the positive, funnily enough, leaves one hoping for that yet to be had, rather than basking in the bliss of the already gained. "Be positive! You'll find 'the one' soon!" That's not being positive. That's reminding me of the fact that I am soulmate-less. Being positive should rather be complimenting me on my shoes. At least those I found already.
From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity . . . A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t.  
Constantly expecting the worst (like the other week, when I was a telephone standby juror, I dialed that number every evening with a shaking finger and a grim sensation of impending doom), and not having it happen, brings such a wave of gratitude one cannot believe. "Oh, thank You, Eibishter, that it all worked out!"   


Anonymous said...

unfortunately every older single can relate this post to dating. That first time you go out your so optimistic, of course this is the person you're going to marry and that first break up is usually the hardest and can take months to get over. with time you go into dates knowing there's a very likely chance this will not work out and it becomes easier when a relationship ends.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

If you always expect the worse you can never be disappointed.

Sporadic Intelligence said...

Ahhh, so you're mechaven to me. I wrote about this a while back, having low expectations on everything, so I'm constantly pleasantly surprised and life is wonderful.

I'm a pessimistic realist and I love my life.

Great post.

Princess Lea said...

Anon: When it comes to dating, especially, I have forced myself to school my emotions. That letdown can be stupefying.

MGI: Exactement.

SI: "I'm a pessimistic realist and I love my life."

Same here! I think I'm going to steal that line . . .