My dear and long suffering reader, I like to think of myself as an optimist, despite it seems, the best efforts of the world around us to pummel that sense of idealism into a dark and pitted shield of cynicism. I hold the opinion that – naive as it may be – people are, as a rule, decent, kind and not given to acts of evil, the popularity of reality television notwithstanding.
Having said this, you may find it odd that I tend to distrust the concept of “positivity” or positive thinking, as it’s often labelled by the army of “gurus” that festoon the self-help section of bookstores and of course, the digital gestalt that is the world-wide-inter-web-net.
For me, there is a distinct difference between positive thinking and optimism, just like there is a definite distinction between a film and a movie, though that discussion will have to be another tale, for another time.
The biggest difference between the two concepts – aside from the fact that one is a state of being and the other is more a brand name than anything else – is in the perception of the user. Let me explain.
The way it’s normally described by its proponents, Positive Thinking – the capitals are deliberate, as I said, it’s essentially a product now – involves seeing the world as beautiful and wonderful, no matter what’s happening around you. It’s portrayed as a kind of avoidance mechanism. The author Douglas Adams, in his brilliantly funny Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, describes a creature he calls the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. This is a wild animal known for its never-ending hunger and its mind-boggling stupidity. The Guide calls the bugblatter, “the stupidest creature in the entire universe – so profoundly unintelligent that, if you can’t see it, it assumes it can’t see you.”
Note: I am in no way suggesting that those who promote Positive Thinking as a way to avoid the negative aspects of life are anything like an alien creature whose stupidity is surpassed only by its ravenous hunger. I’m sure they have entirely normal appetites.
Note: I may be joking here, depending on your point of view.
Hope + Action
Optimism on the other hand, works on a different level entirely. The idea that the world is in fact a beautiful place and that people are generally kind and decent is a fundamental part of optimism. However, instead of pretending terrible things are not happening, optimism takes a more pragmatic approach. Optimism focuses on the now to create a better future. It acknowledges that things are difficult right now, but they will get better, due to the positive actions we take at this moment.
I can understand the desire, even the need to lean toward positivity. There’s so much emphasis placed on the negative in our world, from the various forms of shaming and righteous (but strangely tunnel-visioned) apoplexy found online, to popular entertainment, such as the “Mean Tweets” segment on the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! We’ve created a stage whereby negativity, anger and hatred are highlighted, and even celebrated. The media (and by watching it, we) have turned hatred into a source of entertainment, and its perpetrators into celebrities. Sexual consent, equality and even personal safety are debated endlessly, as if there is some Bizarro-world scenario where violations of these rights are somehow justified. As we careen into such a dark and uncertain future dear reader, “that way be dragons.”
Can we blame anyone for overcompensating in the other direction?
To some, the ideas of positivity and optimism seem like interchangeable terms. Indeed, superficially they are very similar. Both are based on a degree of hope: Hope for the present, hope for the future. The difference lies in what we do with that hope.
Don’t misunderstand me here dear reader. The world IS a magical place, filled with wonders to satisfy appetites both subtle and gross, such as despite the horrors we visit upon it with surprising and appalling regularity. However, avoiding negativity is an entirely unhealthy way to deal with it. It’s Pollyanna-ism, and it’s dangerous. At its best, positivity is just one half of the equation.
Possibly the best way I can illustrate my point is by sharing with you two quotes from people who have lost their jobs, one an example of positive thinking, the other, an optimist.
Dave (Positive Thinker): “I got laid off from work, but it’s a waste of time to be upset. Think of the free time I have now!”
Sue (Optimist): “I lost my job. This is possibly the worst timing ever, but it’ll be alright. I’ll get my resume up to date and hit the streets. There’s work out there, I just have to find it.”
Those are real words from real people. On the surface they look very similar, but a closer examination reveals the difference. Sue, the optimist, is focused on taking action to improve the situation, while the Dave is trying to put a positive spin on things. Not a bad choice per se, though that positive spin probably won’t pay the rent.
We should always think positively about the world and what the people around us are capable of, but a positive future must be created with our actions, not just our thoughts.
Hope without action is just wishing, and wishing isn’t enough.