Recently someone asked me:
How to have a positive outlook when you have an ingrained negative outlook?
I was well into my response about techniques for ‘flipping your thinking’ and ‘reframing’ when it hit me.
Despite appearances to the contrary, I don’t have a naturally positive outlook on life.
My natural state is one of peering constantly into the future, trying to identify potential disasters that could befall me and the people I love so I can lay down stuff in the present to avoid those future disasters. When, despite my best efforts, disasters still happen, I assume it’s my fault for lacking prescience, and double-down on my efforts to prevent any more of those disasters happening.
When good things happen to me and mine, do I enjoy them? Well, I might momentarily feel satisfaction or pride, but never joy. Why? Because my brain also believes there is some kind of cosmic ledger that decrees anything too great must be balanced out with something very shit. Which means one of two things:
- I don’t allow myself to feel joy because that’s too ‘risky’
- If I do allow myself to feel joy, I ‘know’ the price to pay is that something bad is coming to balance it out
Welcome to the wonderful world of my head!
Despite all this, I consider myself to be a happy person.
Well, I guess the simple answer is, you don’t need a naturally positive outlook on life to be happy. You just need to know these three things:
1. Your brain isn’t broken
For suuuuuuuuuuch a long time I believed my brain was defective so I read every article I could find on positive thinking. I was desperate to become someone who always looked on the bright side of life. Tantalisingly, when life was problem-free, I found I could be that person. But, no matter who you are and what you do, life is never problem-free for long. So, of course, as soon as a challenge presented itself, I’d fall back into my usual negative thought patterns and hate myself a little bit.
Eventually, I got tired of hating myself so tried a different approach. I tried working with my brain rather than against it. And I what I found was …
2. Your thoughts don’t define you, your actions do
Or, to put it another way, negative thoughts do not preclude positive action.
Just because my brain was freaking out about, say, a lump in my breast, that didn’t stop me from calling my doctor and booking an appointment to check it out. Just because I was worried someone might think I was being a bit ‘forward’ in making a particular request, that didn’t stop me from pressing ‘send’ on an email to them. Just because something horrible had just happened in the world and I was convinced we’re all going to die soon, that didn’t stop me from taking my kids to the park.
What I’ve found is, the more positive action I take, the more positive action I can take.
3. You can shift your ‘set point’
Imagine a scale from 1 to 10 where ‘negative mindset’ is 1 and ‘positive mindset’ is 10.
I reckon my natural (born with) set point on the negativity/positivity scale sits around 3.5, but these days I mostly operate around 6.5.
Why? Because every tiny bit of positive action I’ve taken in my 40-odd years here on earth has served to shift that ‘set point’ higher up the scale.
These days, when major life challenges present themselves and my brain starts freaking out, I don’t get dragged all the way back to 3.5, I get dragged back to around 5. After working through the problem by taking positive action I settle back around 6.5 again. Who knows where I might be in another year’s time?
We never stop being works in progress.
So, is a positive outlook on life overrated?
If a negative outlook on life is affecting your relationships and/or stopping you from taking positive action, then it’s not working well for you and you may need some coaching or therapy to get your feet on a more workable path.
If, however, you’re managing to lead a content and meaningful life and your thoughts aren’t affecting your ability to have good relationships with the people you love and take positive action in life … then carry on my friend. You’re doing just fine.