In Defense Of Positive Thinking

I’m not going to shill for "The Secret" or tell you depression isn’t real. But maybe there’s something to this whole think happy thing.

Apr 5, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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Does this mean positive thinking is a bright idea, or does the lightbulb symbolize thinking and optimism is implied? It's hard to photograph happy thoughts, damnit!

For a long time, I self-identified as a curmudgeon. Given the right circumstances, I might still clutch at the label as a sort of social security blanket. I can blame it on being an introvert, or I can blame it on being a lapsed activist who has depressive, anxious tendencies.

It’s also worth nothing that a hippie friend once told me I’m an empath, like I have these fluid psychic boundaries that allow me to feel the pain of others, especially animals. So I can blame that too, not the empath label but the idea that I’m a big walking heart that sobs inappropriately in public like Catherine Keener’s well-meaning but cringe-worthy character in “Please Give.” Sometimes I go outside and I’m like, Woah, the PAIN of the WHOLE WORLD! I wish I were joking.

Anyway. You get the idea. I tend to be skeptical of people who tell me to just think happy thoughts because life is HARD for MANY people, and how can I deny that reality?! I don’t believe you can think you use gleeful thoughts to overcome chemical imbalances or the occasional grief of everyday life. I have not and will never read “The Secret.”

But!

But.

I think there might be something to this whole “think positive” thing. Hear me out, happy-to-be-haters among us, for I was once (and am still occasionally) you.

A couple of months ago, I moved to what seems like the happiest city in the country. This is ironic, given that I was living in Denmark for the past three years, purportedly the happiest nation in the world. But I wasn’t happy in Copenhagen, at least not like I should have been. That is a longer story for another day.

After I landed in San Francisco, I was immediately struck by how nice everyone is. But more importantly, I was also maniacally happy to be back in the States. I grinned like a fool everywhere I went, and I effusively greeted everyone I met: editors and potential clients, neighbors, contractors who work on my apartment building, and Jacky, the guy who makes the best breakfast sandwiches in town.

Just by being happy, something obvious and wonderful happened. Everyone I met was equally kind in return. People consistently went out of their way to help me, to have lunch, to offer me tips about my new city. The more I actively tried to focus on the good things happening to me and the good people I met, the better I felt and the more awesome stuff fell in my lap. It wasn’t like I was walking around scowling and cursing before, but rather suddenly, everyone was a carefree and chipper as I was.

The list is long and perhaps boring if you’re my close friend, but suffice to say, I’ve met more people here in six months than I met during my three years abroad. My income has nearly tripled thanks to the professional connections I’ve made. I have to point out that there are always privilege factors playing into this stuff, but it's also worth saying that by just having a better attitude, I'm about 400 times more likely to go after what I want -- and then, you know, get it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that’s going to melt from all the sunshine in my life. Seriously, are you sick of my pep yet?

Let’s be clear. I’m not stupid, and neither are you. I know that being nice to others generally results in positive results. Guy cuts you off in traffic? My longtime rule has been to give him a peace sign instead of the finger. I don’t go around being nasty, and mostly, I can keep nasty people at bay. We all know this, right?

But at some point, I’d just stopped taking for granted that if you go around smiling like a lunatic, people will probably be kind to you (or think you’re high and avoid you, but no harm no foul there).

The ways that it comes back to me are why I’m a convert. The little stuff, when I least expect it, can make my entire last week. Perfect example: Couple of weeks ago, I was coming out of the side door to my apartment building, which opens directly onto the sidewalk. As I swung open the door, a kid on a skateboard sailed past, nearly knocking us both over. I jumped back, and he looked back as he slowed down.

Someone who is not me might have been super pissed, but it was a gorgeous day, and he was wicked talented on that board. I smiled and waved him on, putting in my earbuds as he pulled off his headphones.

“Hey man!” he called back to me in the style of half the people I meet in California.

“Hey man, no worries!” I waved again. But he was circling back. What did he want?

“Man,” he said riding up, “That could have been so bad.” I nodded. “Man, we could have collided, and then neither of us could have enjoyed this beautiful sunny day.” I stared at him. Who talks like that? Do I sound like him lately?

He looked earnestly at me, then up at the bright sky, and all I could do was nod in agreement.

“Be safe out there, man,” I said. And I meant it. I live on top of a very steep hill. Nearly bumping into me was the least of his troubles that day.

So, I focus on that guy. I like to tell the story of our near collision and make new friends laugh. When I meet up with a pal, I don’t answer the inevitable “How are you?” by whining about an editor who won’t get back to me or complain about my sweetie being overseas for a few weeks. I don’t even have to try to avoid unpleasant topics.

I’m usually just so jazzed to be all, “Let me tell you about this skateboarder on my block the other day!” Or, “Holy shit, I ate the best thing today!” Or whatever. Turns out being positive also means staying positive.

Again, I don’t think you should be delusional. A hippy dippy unapologetic optimist once told me that when you get up to give a speech, you have to believe that everyone in the room is rooting for you.

You know what I think? I think you get up to give a speech, and some people don’t even look up from their smartphones. It sucks, and I’m sorry, but they don’t (and they’re also not sorry). But if you want to believe in the goodness of people, you don’t stare down the 10 people rudely checking their email. You make eye contact with the 50 people sitting up front paying attention. You shake hands afterward and put each other’s numbers into your phones That’s how you use positive thinking. Or at least, that’s how this depression-prone sworn pessimist has made it work.

If you’re like a lot of us around here -- introverts, self-employed workers at home -- you might need to engage in a little magical thinking to send off constant pitches for contract work or to constantly put yourself out into the world in order to make loving, lasting personal relationships.

I’ve decided that I’m fine with that. I’m a better person for it. I’m more fun to be around, I’m more likely to be hired, and I have a social calendar that won’t stop because even though I’m a punch-drunk goofball about this positivity stuff, I can check back into that empath mode when it’s necessary and hash out major life issues with new pals as wanted and needed.

Don’t look for me at the next New Thought conference because I won’t be there. But I’ve got no problem with folks out their channeling their healing energy toward living more positive lives. You bring your positive ass outlook and claim the glass is half full. I’m still gonna say the glass is too big and ask if you need a refill, but I’ll be smiling like a loon when I do.