I’ve been told that I’m a very positive person. I had a superior tell me that she was constantly impressed by my continuously positive presence at work. Friends say that they’re motivated and even surprised by my ability to keep going and stay positive despite my struggles.
Every time someone tells me that, however, I get surprised. In my mind, I am not a positive person. I don’t say “look on the bright side” as a platitude all too often or echo other positive sentiments. I am actually very negative in my thinking. I take everything I perceive as negative and process it. I don’t choose to “be positive” or “look on the bright side.”
I am not saying this as a realist or a pragmatist, because I am hopeful for the future even when there is no reason to be hopeful. I have concluded that people have started calling me positive because of my ability to not give up despite adversity, to see adversity as a means of growing as a person and improving a craft, moving a foot forward when I absolutely don’t feel like it.
When I worked on my college newspaper’s editorial board, I was likely the last person to make it based on my poor interview or bad mock debate. Anyone who has worked on an editorial board can tell you the heated arguments that result in having to write a newspaper’s opinion on contentious topics, ranging from Israel-Palestine to campus politics. I would sit in meetings barely saying a word while my peers shouted at each other. But when it came to actually writing the editorials, I was always at hand and willing to write the editorial based on my peers’ consensus.
My editors called me reliable. They called me positive. But I was just the “get shit done” guy, not thinking any more positively than anyone else in the room.
It still perplexes me why people call me positive, because I don’t feel like I am. It is perhaps because these friends and bosses have a different definition of positivity than I do. Positive thinking, to me, has always meant looking on the bright side and looking at the advantages of whatever is going on in your situation. It means ignoring the obstacles and barriers to your goals because you can do anything.
I don’t abide by that pattern of thinking, but perhaps the definition of positive is changing in our common discourse. According to Stephanie Vozza of Fast Company, the idea of positive thinking being a good thing has always been controversial. When Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, many mental health experts called Peale a fraud due to his use of unnamed experts. But his work was undoubtedly influential, as self-help guides all over literature and the Internet advocate eliminating negative self-talk. Positive thinking has become the self-help industry’s greatest tool.
Negative thinking has gotten a bad rap, but recent research defying Peale’s work is beginning to show us otherwise. Maggie Puniewska of The Atlantic questions the effectiveness of positive thinking as a game-changer: people who think positively still have as hard of a time quitting smoking or going to the gym, and reaching every goal close and far.
“The problem that we often run into with this is that when people only think about a positive future,” said psychology professor, Dr. Gabriele Oettigan. “They’ve already attained this future in their minds, so they have little motivation to actually act on it.” And so optimism so often leads us to inaction rather than action. Optimism often leads to dreaming rather than action. And we need to dream, but we also have to, well, do shit.
Negative thinking, in doses, can actually be really good for us and have good results. Oettingen goes on to tell Puniewska that positive thinking leads us to shun any obstacles or barriers we might face. Her research has shown that avoiding thinking about obstacles is inherently ineffective. Predicting obstacles is key to getting shit done.
The advantages of negative thinking also include creativity, critical thinking, and better decision-making. Psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener tell us that negative thinking and emotions help us to focus and ruminate on the situation at hand. Although too much anxiety is bad, a little bit of it helps us have laser-sharp focus to perform tasks that require high concentration.
Negative thinking also makes us tougher and have thicker skin. It allows us to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances if we’re quick to realize something we’re doing isn’t working. Bill Gates, for example, saw in the mid-1990s that the Internet would displace Microsoft Windows and Office, and he chose to integrate the Internet into Microsoft software instead of rejecting it.
Psychologist Eric Haseltine shows us that negative thinking allows us to be visionaries: by thinking about the worst-case scenario, you creatively find the opportunities that other people miss. After all, everyone else has been told to think positively and be content with the status quo. Negative thinking also allows us to seek out others for help, because we start to realize that life is a struggle we’re all in together and that we can’t handle alone. It helps us not give up.
The 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous starts with an admission of powerlessness over addiction. And likewise, we can’t move forward and accept change unless we get over our denial that we weren’t always meant to think positively and be optimistic. To start with the first step, thinking negatively allows us to accept that something isn’t working and something needs to change, like Bill Gates did.
Although we can’t be thinking negatively all the time, negative thinking is actually very good for us, and it’s time for us to start accepting negative thinking to attain its benefits.