In defense of negative thinking.

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Positivity is having a moment right now. When life gives you lemons you should make lemonade. Everything happens for a reason. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and if it’s especially dark right now, you haven’t been buried, you’ve been planted. All you need to do is bloom!

As with almost everything wrong with the world, social media is to blame. Social media has made it easier than ever to enjoy unprecedented, unfiltered access to people who richer, more beautiful and and more successful than the rest of us mere mortals, and thousands more people who make their living by telling us all how we can be just like them if we just think positively enough.

Conspicuously absent from these testimonies, are the people who credit their success to the doors opened by well-connected parents, preternaturally good looks, or a rare, God given talent that occurs only once or twice in a generation, and so their success is held up as all the evidence we need that if we just think positively enough we can achieve the same results.

But as we hopefully already know, life isn’t quite so simple. If you’ll forgive the gender stereotyping, “not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas”.

A brain of two halves.

For the sake of convenience, let’s think of your mind as being made up of two parts; the rational mind and emotional mind. The rational mind is the part that stops and considers things, that weighs up the data before coming to a conclusion, and the emotional mind is the part that reacts instinctively, that colours our natural outlook on the world.

It may surprise you to learn that this outlook is typically negative, not positive, but from an evolutionary standpoint this makes a lot of sense. After all, back when we were living alongside wild animals, the strategy that best increased our chances of survival was to presume the worst of every new thing that came along. There wasn’t time to stop and weigh things up rationally. In the split second available to decide whether what we were facing was something we could handle or something we couldn’t, negative thinking was to be preferred.

But now that our lives are mostly safe, it’s become socially disadvantageous to be negative. In social groups, reacting negatively (and/or fearfully) is a sign of low status, just like it might be in a pack of wolves or a troop of chimpanzees. The “alpha” in the group is the one who most convincingly behaves as if they can handle any threat. Confidence is considered to be an attractive quality because it carries with it the suggestion that we are safe around the person who projects it. For this reason, our emotional brains are programmed to defer to those who project confidence, and to trust those who speak with conviction.

But this programming doesn’t mean that positivity is actually a solution to life’s woes. By definition, the majority of us aren’t “alphas”, and so positive thinking is the practice of forcing the emotional mind to operate in a way it wasn’t designed to.

A third option.

At this point you might be thinking “So what? given the choice between thinking negatively and thinking positively, isn’t it always better to think positively?”and the answer is…it depends. Which strategy is best is entirely dependent on the situation you’re facing, which is why the best strategy of all, is not to rely on positivity or negativity, but rather to train ourselves to use our rational minds more consistently, and evaluate situations rationally.

For example, if for some reason someone close to was suddenly waaaaay too positive, would you appeal to that person to think more negatively, or just to think more clearly? Positivity isn’t the antidote to negativity. They are both ways of looking at the world inaccurately. The choice then, isn’t between positivity and negativity, but between reality and fantasy.

Despite what you may have read, eventually it is too late, we don’t serve ourselves by telling ourselves that it never is, but by using the fact that time is finite to motivate ourselves. We don’t attract whatever we desire into our lives simply by visualising it, even if from the outside, others seem to have done just that. We attract success by planning and working hard and taking calculated risks. The uncertainty this leaves behind can be unsettling, but even without wild animals, this is an uncertain world, and insisting that it isn’t won’t change it. That’s one thing we can be positive about.

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I mainly write about meditation, content creation and personal development. But don’t let that fool you.

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