September 17, 2021

The power of positive thinking. Myth or reality?

(Photo by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay.)

  “Be positive,” a good friend told me at the end of a phone conversation yesterday. Staying positive is difficult at a time when the entire planet seems to be deeply immersed in mud, flooded with bad news about the pandemic. Several months into it, millions of people infected and thousands of daily deaths, finally a vaccine was made available. The good news was like a light at the end of the tunnel.

   To the excitement followed the harsh realization that scientists still don’t know how long the protection will last in vaccinated people, that today there is not enough vaccine for the planet, and even worse, that the coronavirus has mutated into an even more dangerous variant; the efficacy of current vaccines against this variant is unknown.

   “Be positive.” What is that supposed to mean?

   In any life event, be it a surgery, a significant business deal, a job application, things may take the desired direction or not. One is free to envision success or failure. The typical reaction, however, is not to imagine the best. Society has conditioned us to “be realistic,” which leads us, mistakenly, to visualize the worst.

   Thus, a headache automatically brings the concern that it could be a brain tumor in its early stages; a sudden summoning to the boss’ office could end in lay off. And so on.

   The instant negative reaction in the first case, did not allow further elaboration: the imminent deadline of the actual project had forced us to overwork for ten hours, fueled by coffee and tea, with no solid food, which could explain the headache. Or in the second case, the boss could be eager to communicate his decision to promote us.

   It’s not just the outcome of future events that could be envisioned optimistically, but past events as well. A past apparently negative event, in a broader perspective, may be a blessing in disguise, as illustrated in this Zen story. (Zen is a Japanese word for a Buddhist practice).

   This is the story of an old Chinese farmer who lived long ago. He had an old horse that he used to plough his fields. One day, the horse ran away into the hills. Everyone said, “We are so sorry for your bad luck.”

   The old man replied, “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”

   A week later, the horse returned with a herd of wild horses, which now belonged to the old man. Everyone said, “We are so happy for your good luck!”

   The old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

   While his only son was riding one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg. Everyone said, “What bad luck!”

   The old man replied, “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”

   One day, the army came to the village and took all the strong, young men to be soldiers for the emperor. Only the old farmer’s son was spared because he could not fight with a broken leg. Everyone said, “What good luck!”

   The old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

   It may be wise therefore not to jump into quick conclusions, previewing future outcomes or assessing past outcomes.

   It’s not the unfolded event per se, but rather the interpretation that matters: a more conclusive interpretation is only possible in a broader context.    In this story, the dialogue between the old farmer and his neighbors made possible the interpretation, either positive or negative (good luck, bad luck), but a similar process takes place in our daily lives.

  Individually, from the first waking minute to the last before going to sleep, we are anticipating the outcome of future events and interpreting past events. It’s a nonstop silent monologue, mirroring our thoughts to the second.

   Self-doubt and self-recrimination becomes the norm: ”you’re gonna fail,” “dummy, you did it again”, “you’re good for nothing.” Sadly, this takes place minute after minute, day after day, year after year. We make ourselves the target of unkind treatment that we would never give to friends or family members.

   Ultimately, such words can impact life events and even health. Self-confidence is corroded, life becomes boring and senseless.

   Almost 70 years ago, Norman Vincent Peale published “The Power of Positive Thinking.” In subsequent decades, by the time of his death in 1993, it sold more than 15 million copies in 42 languages and changed millions of lives.

   Peale’s book appeared in the post-World War II era, when marvelous discoveries, great technological advances and mass communication had just started. Despite these achievements, humans felt isolated, lacking the spark of life.

   Peale mentions an Army medical doctor returning from the war who found a generalized pattern in his patients: “They are not sick in their bodies so much as they are sick in their thoughts and emotions. They all are mixed up with fear thoughts, inferiority feelings, guilt and resentment.” His patients needed no medicine but better thought patterns.

   Peale’s book brought a new vision. The first chapter starts with the sentences “Believe in yourself. Have faith in your abilities! Without confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”

   In subsequent chapters, Peale targets other relevant aspects: to quiet the mind, the use of prayer, avoid complaining, the importance of visualization, refusal to be defeated (persistence), to expect the best, relaxation, avoiding worries, use faith for healing, how to become socially likeable.

   Embedded in what Peale calls “positive thinking” are several practices to calm down the mind and generate positive emotions that ultimately shield against the chaos of modern life. (Almost three-quarters of a century after Peale published his book, the level of busyness and stress in our society have peaked, magnifying the physical and mental imbalances.)

   In the following articles of this series, we’ll be investigating how positive and negative emotions (triggered by positive or negative thinking) contribute to healing or illness, according to contemporaneous medical science.

Contact the author of this article Jesus Zaldivar at jesus.zaldivar@nullstudent.northampton.edu.

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