The Importance of Thinking Negative
Despite popular belief amongst my family, friends and employees, I am not a very positive person. Actually, I don’t believe in positive thinking–believing that everything will always work out because you want it to be a certain way. No, the truth is that you don’t get what you want in life. You get what you tolerate. You get your standards. Bad stuff happens all the time, even to good people. That’s the way of the universe. Don’t ask me why. I wasn’t included in the board meeting during the master plan to create this reality. I have a belief that nature is clueless and could care less about your desires. You operate in nature, not the other way around. Sure, you can alter nature slightly, using your mind and body to invent and create things that improve your standard of living, but I think it’s always best to be mindful of the reality of nature. Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquake, fires, accidents– these are all a natural part of life. No amount of positive thinking is going to make all that go away.
So do we walk around moping all the time and murmuring about how hard life is? Absolutely not! Though I don’t believe in positive thinking, I do believe in accurate thinking–seeing things as they are, but not worse than what they are. For some odd reason, humans have the tendency to create stories about occurrences in everyday life that lead to the conclusion that all hell will break lose, or that no one will love us, or we will never be enough. Accurate thinking, or what the Stoics called Reason, is a tool unique to humans and we can use it to examine the world around us, and make choices that positively affect our lives. Conversely, only thinking about things in a positive way hinders us from being able to correctly identify obstacles and formulate plans to overcome them using reason. What I’m contending here is that seeing the downside to a plan, being able to negatively visualize an outcome is an incredible tool for preventing pain and can actually help you grow as a person. Moreover, not being blindsided by some negative event may allow you to maintain tranquility. I believe the ability to identify possible problems is a crucial part to survival.
Is the glass half full or half empty? This question missed the entire point. Reason would tell us that the glass is filled to half of its capacity. The glass is halfway filled up. This type of thinking is not new. In fact, it’s thousands of years old. The school of philosophy called Stoicism and it’s teachers spoke about using reason to control your emotions and maintain tranquility. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius also suggested that we use negative visualization as not only a way to identify possible problems before hand, but also to better appreciate the things and people we have in our lives. Here, these philosophers argued that in addition to seeing things as they are, rather than how we’d like them to be, we should also envision the worst-case scenario on occasion. Why? Suppose that in your interactions with others, you envision that this is the last time you might see them because something terrible will happen to you or them. How will you treat them? Will you yell and roll your eyes at them like some of us do? What are the thoughts that will enter your head? Will they be thoughts of malice and hate? Or will they perhaps be thoughts of regret? Regret that you didn’t make more of the time you had together. What of your possessions? By imagining you may lose them all, you may develop a better appreciation for what your already have rather than seeking pleasure in acquiring new things.
The point of this exercise is to remind us that eventually there will be a last time for something. Our time is limited and that what is makes it special. Pretending that every time you kiss your wife or kids is the last time may sound depressing, but let me suggest that engaging in this practice radically changes the way you act towards people. By constantly reminding ourselves that our lives are on loan to us and that everything we have will come to and end, we can become driven to do the things that really matter. Also, the way we act towards others will become more positive because few want our last memory of something to be negative-so we being to cherish the relationships that mean something to us even more. Thinking about the negative in this situation can actually cause us to become happier and more fulfilled.
In conclusion, being constantly cheery while ignoring problems is no way to go through life. Happiness is not necessarily our default emotion. Our brains were not designed to make us happy. They certainly can, but their primary purpose is to evaluate the world around us and help us identify obstacles and the solutions to them. Our brains are wired for survival, not necessarily joy. So, if you don’t wake up happy or walk around with a permanent smile, don’t worry. You’re not abnormal. Just be sure that you see things as they are but not worse than what they are. Walking into your garden and chanting “there’s no weeds” will not make the weeds go away. But by thinking “positively” and ignoring them, they might just grow right up over your feet. See things as they really are, not better than they are, not worse than they are. Once you know the reality, you can begin to improve it. And remember too, that we all fated with a death sentence. We all have very limited time. So spend it wisely!