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Positive Thinking

Dear Gurus

Do you think that trying to alter our thoughts by making them more positive is helpful in becoming happier?

I feel a bit confused about this as many self-help books suggest that it is very important to be positive, yet other spiritual paths claim that becoming an observer or witness to our thoughts is far more important than trying to change them. They suggest that the act of conscious observation itself will improve our experience.

These two methods seem quite different, if not opposed to each other. Do you agree and if so, which method do you think is most effective? Or am I missing something?

Thanks very much.

Dear Gurus

Do you think that trying to alter our thoughts by making them more positive is helpful in becoming happier?

I feel a bit confused about this as many self-help books suggest that it is very important to be positive, yet other spiritual paths claim that becoming an observer or witness to our thoughts is far more important than trying to change them. They suggest that the act of conscious observation itself will improve our experience.

These two methods seem quite different, if not opposed to each other. Do you agree and if so, which method do you think is most effective? Or am I missing something?

Thanks very much.

Asked by Richard G.

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Answers (6)


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Margaret Koolman

Soul Astrology

I’m not surprised at your confusion, they do seem very different. But I think they come together in a slightly different emphasis: rather than ‘making’ your thoughts different, how about just giving the positive thoughts more attention, and letting the more negative ones wither away from lack of energy. All the best with your focus!

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Simon Matthews

Psychotherapist

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Dear confused,

I think you are right to be confused. You are standing on the dividing line between two great traditions which seem to be at odds with each other.

The Western ‘psychological’ tradition is based on a concept of an individual, who has various neurotic thoughts that block him/her from ‘happiness’. By understanding the psychological origins of these neurotic thoughts and by working through them and re-framing them (making them more positive) it is believed that the sufferer will become more happy and positive. Concepts of ‘happiness’ and ‘positivity’ are culturally reinforced through self-help books and advertising and are believed to be emotional states worth aiming for.

The Eastern ‘contemplative’ tradition is based on the concept of transcendence. Rather than occupying yourself with trying to alter thoughts that you consider ‘negative’ it recommends adopting a neutral stance in which you let go of your self-image of an individual with thoughts and adopt the position of an observer to those thoughts, watching them come and go. Gradually there is a dis-identification with the thoughts as ‘you’ and an increasing identification with the one who observes as part of a transcendent collective consciousness. Concepts of the ‘individual’, ‘happiness’ and ‘positivity’ are seen to be transitory states that ebb and flow and are therefore impermanent, unreal and undesirable as goals.

Paradoxically both are true, and both have their pitfalls.
Some people get so lost in their own psychological material and trying to find happiness in an imperfect world that they can become disillusioned and depressed. Others (and many of the seekers in the 60’s went this route) transcended themselves and found ‘enlightenment’ but never did the psychological work necessary to understand themselves and ground their experience and came painfully crashing back to earth.

I realise that this is a long explanation to a short question! But it’s a difficult one to answer concisely.

I guess the long and short of it is: try and do both concurrently if you can, and if you can’t then do the Western approach first and the Eastern next. From personal experience and working with clients this seems to be the best way round.

Oh – and have fun whichever path you choose…

Simon

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Paul Pisces

Author

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The serenity prayer (as used in Alcoholics Anonymous) can provide comfort in times of difficulty:

“(God) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This suggests practicing acceptance of a situation which is out of an individuals control and trusting in a “Higher Power”. It is also a call to action where action can make a difference.

I find that this thinking process reduces my stress and increases my happiness when I am faced by unpleasant circumstances.

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Karim Hirani

Global Head of L&D, Leadership Coach and Facilitator, Author

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Dear Questioner,

I would take a step back and look at two ways we mean by happiness and then see if positive thinking supports that.

One interpretation of happiness is that we have ‘positive feelings’ (joy, fulfilment, contentment). Yes, there is a relationship between thinking and feelings. If we think negative thoughts, then this impacts our feelings (if I tell myself I am not good, bad etc, then I am going to feel unpleasant).So, yes there is a relationship between thoughts and feelings, and in this sense it is helpful to work on negative thought patterns that actively impact our unpleasant experience. So, it could be argued then that if I think positive thoughts that I will feel pleasant or happy. There are two assumptions here 1. thoughts alone create unpleasant feelings and 2. unpleasant feelings are ‘bad’ and are in the way of happiness (I shall talk to the second point below). Feelings have a life of their own. An extreme example: if someone dies, we feel grief/sorrow. It would not be helpful to positively think our way out of it, as feelings of grief and loss are a natural part of the grief cycle (as are anger, shock, denial etc). If we positively thought our way out of it, then these feelings would be suppressed. This is where the positive thinking method can shoot itself in the foot – there is a flow of feelings that is important to experience, and is part of nature. And with positive thinking, these feelings end up showing up in other ways (low moods, annoyance) and corresponding behaviours. We can get into a vicious cycle by trying to overcome these with more positive thinking and my experience is that it ends up spiralling downwards, not upwards. The desire of happiness in this context is based on the fundamental human construct is based on the pleasure-pain principle – we seek pleasure and don’t desire pain.

Another interpretation of happiness is that we are free: free from wanting things one way or another i.e. it is a level above wanting to have happy feelings – we accept whatever feelings we have. Something shifts here in our relationship to feelings. No longer do we desire pleasure, avoid pain, but we accept that both are part of the human experience. The feelings of grief, for example, become a rich experience that opens up our capacity to love. We recognise that different feelings are part of the flow of human experience. We transcend the often defeating attachment to pleasure. So, where does positive thinking fit here? Well, we work on the thought processes that actively create unpleasant feelings (for example undoing patterns of thought that give us negative messages), and see the thought patterns that actively block unpleasant feelings. So, rather than creating positive thoughts, I would say that we create freedom from the patterns of thinking and eventually, free ourselves from the attachment to thinking itself. (Simon has written about this beautifully). This can lead to a level of freedom and contentment that is beyond ‘happiness’ in our feelings, and allows our experience to show up freely too, to which the spiritual paths refer. I won’t repeat what Simon said about working on the mind only or the spiritual only has its shadow side, with both having a truth. And this is the position I would hold…both traditions have a truth, and it would be beneficial in drawing on the wisdom of both.

One last comment I would make: when you notice your thoughts, positive or negative, ultimately they are just assumptions that are based on past conditioning, identifications, beliefs. Whether you see yourself in a positive or negative light, it is still based on assumptions and ultimately, freedom is to see beyond those assumptions, and this is where many spiritual traditions focus on. However, there are new approaches to spirituality that now integrate working with the thoughts and the witness/observer. E.g. Almaas’s Diamond Approach, Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology, Mindfulness books written by Kabat-Zinn or Mark Williams.

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GC Robert

Founder, Guru Circus

Hi

Thanks for your question – I hope yo’ve found the answers so far useful.

For me the answer to your question depends on a number of other questions(!):

How deeply do you want to work and for how long?
What are you really trying to achieve?
What do you believe about the nature of the human condition?
Do you want to work psychologically, or do you sign up to a spiritually orientated approach to life?

You specifically ask about happiness – on this I would take the view that happiness is about ‘now’ rather than a future moment in time, and on that basis which of the two approaches you are considering would make you happiest to do?

In other words, would you feel happier right now consciously attempting to make your thoughts more positive or simply observing them?!

Another approach comes from the psychosynthesis model, which would propose that the part of you (or me!) that has negative thoughts is a sub-personality that happens to be like that for good reason. Psychosynthesis would also suggest that this sub-personality wants something, and beneath that want has a need, and beneath that need holds a positive quality.

So you could work with your negative thoughts in this way: get in touch with the part of your personality that has negative thoughts and see if you can discover what it wants, what it needs, and what positive quality it contains.

The reason why this model might be beneficial is because rather than making this sub-personality have positive thoughts, what you’re actually doing when you try to have positive thoughts is giving energy to a different sub-personality – one that thinks positively. Your ‘negative’ sub-personality just moves to the background unchanged!

Some of us are terrorised by negative thoughts – I certainly know what that’s like and can vouch for how horrendous it is when it happens. If this is what’s happening to you then I would – from my own experience – recommend trying to protect yourself, at least initially.

In the end we do need to talk to our inner terrorists – just as I personally believe we need to talk to our outer terrorists too. But first we need to create a safe place for that conversation to take place.

Lastly, your question is based on the idea of trying to ‘improve our experience’. I am starting to fundamentally question the value of improving my experience and you could to!

The fact that you’re having any experience at all is a miracle – isn’t that enough? You could try resting in that and be happy!

-Robert

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Rasheed Ogunlaru

Coach - Speaker - Author

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Dear Questioner,

Simon posts a wonderful rich, yet succinct insightful summary into the these two different approaches that you mention.

The mind will be confused often when trying to find answers – that is the very nature of mind: seeking certainty and understanding even if there is little or no certainty and even if there is little way of knowing completely.

I would add – to pick on your precise question – *”Do you think that trying to alter our thoughts by making them more positive is helpful in becoming happier?”*… that my own experience personally and working with many clients is that trying to change thoughts can be like trying to change the weather. Thoughts will arise. Emotions will arise. Ups and downs will arise in the mind as they will in the weather we witness outside. It would seem that those who tend to be most ‘well adjusted’ are those who actually develop a healthier relationship to the thoughts, emotions and situations of life. In that way their ‘happiness’ and identity is not bound up by thoughts and emotions – or at least not wholly. This perhaps does point a little to the more ‘contemplative’ tradition that Simon refers to.

Again Simon beautifully invites you to consider where you feel you’re at and which – if either of these paths – seem to resonate with you and to enjoy whichever way that you approach life from here. You may find that the crossroads you are at is that between seeking to know and readyness to be at peace with your mind.

With every best wish. Rasheed

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