I’ve always been an optimist. I inevitably see the glass as half-full. I’m a firm believer that it will all work out for the best. I drive other people crazy somethings by my persistent practice of looking only on the bright side of things. For several years, I edited some of Dr. Robert Schuller’s sermons and books, and loved his approach–think of the possibilities!
But now I’m seeing research that suggests being a positive thinker can actually create a sense of unhappiness and disappointment. What happens when things don’t work out the way we want? Maybe then we practice what is called “denial.” The researchers say that even those affirming self-affirmations can have the opposite effect.
As I thought about this, I realize that I often use the negative in my work with clients. Sometimes I prescribe the symptom. If you’re anxious, let’s work at becoming more anxious. Or I might “catastrophize” someone’s situation by taking it to an almost absurdly negative outcome. It’s a paradoxical approach, just as the title of this posting is paradoxical to most of our thinking.
The Stoics in ancient Greece and Rome said that the best way to deal with an uncertain future is to focus on what might be the worst outcome. Our economy is at best uncertain. The optimist in me says “It will all work out.” But what if it doesn’t for me? Then my optimism has set me up for great disappointment. Instead, say the Stoics, think carefully and in detail of how the worst could be for me.
They called it “premeditation of evils.” One of the positives of carefully detailing the worst possible personal outcome is that it reduces the power and effect of any anxiety we have about the future. It’s also called “being realistic.” Oh, how the optimist in me resists that phrase.
The Samurai of Japan would begin each day by meditating on the thought, “Today I am going to die.” Then they went out and faced their day with fearless confidence. Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” Maybe the Samurai were on to something.
Question: How would you live today if you lived it as if it were your last?