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Positivity and Negativity

Positivity and Negativity


Several readers have commented that they think that positive thought can be oppressive or irritating. Surely it can’t be good for a depressed person to have relentlessly joyful person bounce into the room and tell him “Just cheer up!” Moreover, some of the most beautiful things that humans have created have been expressions of sadness and despair. And some people just like gloom.

To think of these phenomena as objections to the arguments presented here is a misunderstanding. The term “positive thought” is a shortcut; it is a way of referring to a set of practices developed and perfected by religions and other institutions over time. It does not mean optimism or ecstasy or joviality. Prayer, meditation, music and cognitive behavioral therapy are “positive thought.” The label is meant to refer to what all of these arts have in common – namely, the ability to influence behavior and emotion using the power of the mind in ways that are beneficial and healthy. All of these share in common the following characteristics:

A. They are associated with a method
B. The method requires discipline
C. The practitioner enjoys benefits as a result of practice
D. These benefits are the result of changes in neurochemistry caused by thought patterns

There are limits to positive thought. The brain only has power over things that occur in the brain, like thoughts and emotion. The brain cannot prevent outside events from occurring. Fortunately, most of what we all perceive comes through the filter of our brains. So despite our inability to affect the world, we can affect our mood and the way we respond to the world.

In order to achieve the goals of positive thought, its methods must be applied lightly. In music therapy, the music should match the subject's emotional state and then gently bring him up into a different state of mind.

Sturm und drang as an aesthetic value is not ruled out by this kind of positive thought. Those who like the Mozart Requiem and My Bloody Valentine can still be practitioners of positive thinking. In fact, much of religious music and art is gloomy, and religion (which defines positive thought) promotes that aesthetic along with its ideology.

Prayer avoids the potential clash between an expectation of unhappiness and unproductivity by establishing God as a proxy. You know your own status to be unsatisfactory, and so you address your requests to this overseer. He requires and suggests nothing. You merely address your queries to him, and in doing so you recite an ideal vision of your happiness to yourself.

Positivity without discipline can be ineffective or even counter-productive. It is not helpful to assure yourself of a positive outcome in a gamble. It is not helpful to imagine that you are not injured if you are. It is not helpful to believe that the stock market will improve during each moment that it falls.

But it is effective to believe that you are healthy and happy (however you define happiness), because you have the ability to instruct your brain that this is the case. Only in controlling your hormones and other brain-activated factors that influence this subjective experience of life, can we optimize the overall experience.

Most of us want to survive, and most want to survive well. We all may have different ideas of what is surviving well and what is not. There are no arguments here saying what the best way to survive is, only that we best survive. And one of the things we know about survival is that it requires cooperation which requires sympathy.

So we know that we need to cooperate and that we need to look out for our selves and our families, some of one, and some of the other, to one extent or another. The question, for many of us, is “How much?”

And that's an important question upon which we all seem to disagree. But one thing we all can agree on is that we, collectively, need to keep on surviving. And preferably as long as possible.

So positivity is not about which aesthetic wins, it is about steps that the majority of people have taken throughout history by joining religions, playing music, or even just talking, that make us feel better and live better. We can love sadness and loss for what they contribute to the texture of life and still practice some form of positive thought, and most people do.



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