July 22, 2009

On Positive Thinking

By John Sanidopoulos

Recently Canadian psychologists published a study in Psychological Science Today, saying that when we repeat positive statements such as "I am a lovable person" or "I will succeed", it makes some people feel worse instead of raising self-esteem. It said that these mantras may prove helpful in the context of therapy, however when they are repeated on their own they tend to make things worse rather than better, simply because it rarely actually changes circumstances beyond our control.

In today's society, to think positive means more often than not to be self-affirmative. Self-affirmation, however, while it can be a means towards success in a capitalist system which aims towards the acquisition of wealth, or even be used as a means to being more self-confident in social situations, is a self-centered attitude that builds a negative form of self-esteem which causes more psychological damage than healing. The study by the Canadian psychologists seems to affirm this.

From my personal experience, I spent five years working as a salesman in various companies. My managers would encourage us to listen to CD's about building a positive attitude for success and how this attitude affects the wealth you make and the overall success you have in life. During sales meetings we would sometimes study such self-affirmative-friendly Sales Bibles as Dale Carnagie's How To Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's Think and Grow Rich. From one company I would get on my blackberry daily quotes from these authors as well as the "great" men and women of history about the various methods that helped them reach "success" in life and avoid "failure", and these were meant to inspire us to do the same.

Does this stuff work to make people materially successful? Yes, I believe they can help. But the people I noticed who took these things to heart the most and were in turn the most successful were also the most selfish, self-centered, aggressive, pushy and lying salesmen I knew. The most important thing in their life was money and success, and they believed that greed was good, because their own interests were the most important thing in life, often at the expense of others. They became so convinced in their heads that they were absolutely entitled to success, that they would do just about anything to acquire it. The self-affirmation they learned made them nothing but self-absorbed, self-seeking and all around selfish at the expense of others. Don't get me wrong, they were all very nice and friendly when not in sales mode and I enjoyed their company, but get them in front of a customer and they transformed into some of the most desperate and greedy people I knew. They built up the necessary need and want in the customers, convincing themselves they were only serving to help the customer get what they alone could give, but in reality it was for their own self-interest to make money. When I was interviewed for sales jobs, I would be asked why I want to do sales, and if I didn't respond "to make as much money as I can possibly make", I likely would have never got the job. They do these things because they know this method does work, and without this method there can be little to no hope that quotas would be met and thus of keeping their job. As a result, over a period of five years I worked five different sales jobs, not because I couldn't do it, but because I no longer wanted to do it and kept hoping for something better. The method necessary to be successful and help grow companies in a highly competitive business almost always requires one to be selfish and greedy. When you sell something to people what they don't need and have to convince them that they do need it, then ethics is usually thrown out the door - no matter how much that sales person thinks they are doing something positive for others. In the end, the only one being benefited is themselves and this is justified by supposedly helping others.

Working in sales helped me learn a lot about life. Success in life, the worldly way, is often mirrored in the same way I described above. In this method, there will either be winners or losers, and not everyone can win, since it is designed to overcome competition. Only the best who follow this method of success can succeed, unless one has a unique talent or offering. Those who do succeed usually convince themselves that they arrived at success by helping others beyond themselves, and sometimes and some ways this may be true, but whether or not this was their primary motivation is another matter. The losers end up envying the winners, and to become winners they can only talk themselves into thinking they are winners to become winners. Sometimes this is successful, usually it is not. Psychological damage ensues with passions either going unsatisfied or satisfied, rather than overcome and transformed into virtues.

Some people believe that to think positive is the difference between being happy with a smile and feeling sad with a frown. They may not care about material wealth, or at least so they say, but all they care about is being happy. In this case, what needs to be examined is how they define happiness in their minds. Usually if it is not about something material, it is about something existential. In this case, repeating words or developing self-affirmation will not help, but rather it requires something deeper, that can give meaning to their life. People who practice the popular methods of positive thinking, including the teaching espoused in The Secret where it is believed we can create happiness and success if we believe we have it and project it in our lives, will only invite greater disappointment, and like a failed diet plan, they will only go in circles looking for new and "better" ways to make themselves feel better.

However, there is another form of positive thinking that is healthy and Christian. As Christians we are encouraged to have a positive and optimistic outlook on life, to see the good in others rather than the bad or negative, and to glorify and thank God for all things whether they be positive or negative in our lives. Such positive thinking discourages the arrogance and self-centeredness of self-affirmation and cultivates within us humility, compassion, love and other such virtues. It helps us think beyond ourselves, whether it be for the glory of God or to help our fellow man. While self-affirmation serves the god Mammon, humility and selfless love serve the true God.

It is for this reason that Elder Paisios the Athonite always taught the necessity for Christians to be positive thinkers - to only see the good things in life and be blind to every evil. He would teach: "We must have positive thoughts, otherwise none of the spiritual fathers - not even the Saints - can help us." I encourage everyone to read his biography and writings to see the many illustrations by which he did this. "This is our aim," he would say, "to totally submit our mind to the grace of God. The only thing Christ is asking from us is our humility. The rest is taken care of by His grace." The consequences of not having positive thoughts, taught the Elder, is psychological problems. He says: "When our soul lives carelessly without watching over its thoughts, it will consequently fill up with dirty and deceiving thoughts. As a result, people start developing psychological problems which gradually pile up."

Ultimately we are to get rid of our thoughts altogether, whether they be positive or negative, and allow the grace of God to govern every part of our lives and thoughts. Elder Paisios elaborated on this, saying:

"Almost all of us consider our thoughts to be simple and natural, therefore, we spontaneously rely on them. On the contrary, we should neither trust nor accept them. We must not have any thoughts in our mind or heart, neither positive ones, nor negative ones, for this space inside us belongs to the grace of God. We are obliged to keep it pure, not only of our various thoughts but also of the slightest and most elusive slip of the mind. We can only achieve this, if we fervently love Christ and unhesitatingly trust Him. As a result, we humble ourselves, and divine grace, naturally, will be revived inside us, for it is only granted to the humble ones; 'God opposes the proud, but gives Grace to the humble'" (1 Pet. 5:5).

This is why as Christians we are called to pray unceasingly, filling our thoughts with the name of Christ and a humble attitude, as embodied in the prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me". This is the Christian mantra that can help us truly be successful in virtue, and in our love for God and mankind. It can be helpful in business as well if done faithfully, but it is difficult if not shared by those who oversee your success. Yet as Christians we are called to be successful in a life according to Christ, even at the expense of worldly success if need be. But we are also assured that God will fulfill all of our needs, if we are faithful to Him and seek Him.