Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called: "The Power of
Positive Thinking". Although there is a lot of truth in that book, one has to be
aware of the danger of thinking positive things that aren't true. To solve problems one
must have an accurate perception of them. An accurate perception of reality increases our
chances of achieving happiness. If reality is really bad we may be temporarily happier if
we don't realize that but in the long term we can better solve problems if we have an an
accurate perception of what they are. Julie Norem a psychology professor at
Wellesley College wrote a book called The Positive
Power of Negative Thinking, in which she she makes the point that thinking through
what can go wrong may be a better way to cope with problems than assuming that they won't.
A team from the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuernberg,
the Berlin-based DIW as well as Humboldt University in Berlin and the university
of Zurich conducted a
found that people who had a rosy view of their future were sicker and had
shorter lives than people who were more realistic in their view.
"It is possible that a pessimistic outlook leads elderly people to look after themselves and their health better and take greater precautions against risks," said one of the researchers, Frieder Lang.
Sometimes things appear to be worse than they are when we are unrealistic in our thinking. Often depressed people do not have a realistic view of reality. In fact a successful treatment for depression, cognitive therapy, is based on bringing a more realistic view of reality to people suffering from depression. Serious problems may result from not facing reality. To read about some real life examples of problems that have resulted to individuals in their personal lives click here. To peruse historical examples of consequences on a large scale such as war that has resulted from not facing reality and for current examples of war that is likely to result from not facing reality click here.
The assumption underlying the therapeutic methods on this web site are that realistic thinking will lead to a better reality because the more we understand our world the better we can cope with it.
What if reality is terrible? What if there isn't much we can do about it? Aren't we better off not facing reality in that situation? Won't we be happier if we don't? My wife used to read the newspaper but quit and tells me she's much happier now that she has. Isn't she better off now? What can she do about the disastrous state of affairs in the Sudan or where-ever she's reading about? I think part of the answer to that question is to ask it on a large scale, what if everyone, other than politicians, decided that they'd be happier not reading the newspaper? How would they know who to vote for or what policies to support or what precautions to take? If you don't know that people are being mugged in the park down the street, you won't know to vote for a politician who will increase the number of police and you won't know to avoid that park.
What about bad people who know reality. Wouldn't it be best for everyone if they had as bad a grasp on reality as possible so they would be less effectively in achieving their evil goals. It may be that in some cases that is true. In some cases however bad people are bad because they have false paranoid beliefs about other people. If those beliefs were corrected they might no longer be bad. Similarly some bad people have false positive beliefs about threats. The people with the false positive beliefs are bad because they don't take effective action against threats and may sometimes take action that worsens the threat.
How can we face reality and not be miserable about it? We can try and make a plan of action to improve our situation and then try not to think about the situation and try to be happy. Lets say for example that we our very upset about a political situation. During dwell time we might write a letter to the editor of a newspaper about it or join an organization which we believe will help. During non-dwell time we try and not think about the political situation that is upsetting us but focus on other things and enjoy life. The advice to dwell on positive thoughts was given by Lionel Aldridge in 1987. Lionel Aldridge a former football star with the Green Bay Packers, gave a speech describing how he overcame schizophrenia with positive thinking after being initially helped by drug therapy. He searched the Scriptures for a statement describing his feelings about positive thinking and found it in Phil. 4:8, paraphrasing it in his speech. He said:
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is praiseworthy think about these things."
My argument in favor of realistic thinking sounded limiting to a visitor to my web site who wrote to me that parents often discourage their children from achieving their aspirations by telling them to be realistic. The problem here may be in the parent's perception of what realistic is. We don't always know what our limitations or abilities are. My message is that in general things will improve in one's life the more realistic one is. The message that realism will make things better is actually a very positive message. It says we don't have to hide from reality to find happiness and that happiness does not have to be based on illusion and self deception. I believe that just as there are illusions that can feed negative cycles that lead to unhappiness, realistic thinking can feed positive cycles that lead to happiness.
If we have unrealistically high expectations of ourselves we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. If we have unrealistically low expectations of ourselves we will never achieve our dreams that we are capable of achieving because we will be convinced that the effort to do so is futile.
Happiness is affected by our self esteem, our optimism about the future and our belief that we are loved. If we've done something wrong, if we face a threat in our future and if we face people who are hostile to us, fooling ourselves that we don't may lead to temporary happiness, but ultimately such illusions are likely to lead to more unhappiness. If we don't recognize our mistakes we are likely to repeat them, and if we don't take defensive measures against threats to our well being we are more likely to succumb to them.
You may ask
So how can we raise our self esteem, our optimism and our belief we are loved without thinking unrealistically and creating a worse situation?
If we are realistic and face our threats we are more likely to overcome them. We can raise our optimism and be realistic when we focus on that. If we recognize our mistakes and weaknesses and endeavor to overcome them we can raise our self esteem by taking pride in that. If we understand our role in making others hostile then we can make adjustments in our behavior so that others will like us more.
Although I don't believe in false positive believing I do believe we should make the best of things and attempt to have a positive attitude. John Wooden expressed this as follows:
Things turn out the best
for the people
who make the best
of the way things turn out.
I think we should strive to think positive realistic thoughts. What if times are rough? What positive thoughts are realistic in that situation? One thought is that if one is in a better mood things are likely to improve. The following example illustrates what I mean. I have a friend whose life is full of disasters. She gets sick all the time but doctors are unable to find the reason. Her getting sick all the time contributed to her being fired from a job and has caused her medical bills to become so large that she can't pay them and she is constantly being threatened by collectors. She's afraid she'll lose her car to them and she needs her car to get to work and to do her errands. She understandably is very pessimistic and frightened and depressed. Her depression prevents her from finding a boyfriend. Her poor finances make it impossible for her to pay the costs to go on single weekends and so reduce her opportunities to meet a potential boyfriend. She is constantly thinking negative thoughts. I tried to encourage her to think more positively but she said there was nothing positive to think. I reminded her that her doctors think that her becoming sick all the time might be linked to her being depressed and so one positive thing to think would be that if she makes an effort to be happy she will get sick less often. If she is sick less often she will accrue fewer medical bills, her boss will like her more and so on. In addition if she's happier she'll be more likely to find a boyfriend.
After I wrote the above paragraph a doctor finally did find something wrong with her. Perhaps what the Doctor found partially explains her repeatedly getting sick. Perhaps her getting sick all the time has nothing to do with her being depressed. One lesson here is just because Doctor's can't find what's wrong doesn't mean you should stop getting medical tests and assume it's all in your head. Another lesson is that even when a situation appears hopeless it may improve. Now that the Doctor knows what's wrong he can treat her. If she gets sick less often she may pay off her medicals improve her mood and be able to afford to attend a singles even and wind up with a boyfriend.
There are studies that supposedly show that people whose perception of reality was distorted in a positive way, were happier than people who had an accurate perception of reality.
The reason why I have difficulty believing in these studies is because false positive thinking can lead to disaster. I can see how one might be happier in the short term if one has false positive beliefs. Lets imagine for example that a woman lives in a dangerous neighborhood and likes to go out late at night. Lets say her reality is distorted in a positive way and she believes that he can handle any mugger that might come along and that it's unlikely that any mugger would bother her. This person is likely to be happier than the person who doesn't go out and barricades herself behind bar covered windows in her home at night. On the other hand if a mugger robs and rapes her someday she may spent the rest of her life being more unhappy than the woman who barricades herself in her home at night.
Maybe a flaw in these studies is that the people with the false positive beliefs are people who haven't been burnt yet. Once they are mugged they become realistic and unhappy. The studies will then count them as realistic unhappy people and so conclude that realistic people are less happy than unrealistic ones.
An assumption underlying the belief that realistic thinking makes the world a better place is that knowledge of truth in general will make the world a better place. Arguments for and against that underlying assumption are made on the truth web page.
The more we understand our world the more useful devices we can create to make our world better. Technical knowledge has made the cell phone possible yet at the same time the cell phone is used to set off bombs that kill civilians by terrorists. The technical knowledge that has made possible nuclear power has also made possible nuclear bombs. If we face reality we are faced with the grim possibility that terrorists will set nuclear bombs off in our cities. Our knowledge of biology has led to cures of diseases but also has made possible the creation of biological weapons. There seems to be a duality to the Universe so that when we acquire knowledge to accomplish good, the knowledge we acquire becomes available to those who would use it for evil purposes.
c o p y r i g h t ( c ) 1 9 9 9 - 2004 Karl Ericson Enterprises. All rights reserved
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