In the last half-century or so, there’s been a lot of talk about the power of “positive thinking”. Hundreds of books have been written about the transformational capacity of this practice, many of which describe it as something akin to a supernatural ability; positive thinking will magnetize money to you, conjure the partner of your dreams, and make manifest the chocolate bar you’ve been craving since noon.

Most templates of positive thinking state that it works like this; the whole of our physical reality is made up of energy, including our thoughts. Because thoughts are energy, they attract “like” energies (usually described as being either positive or negative.) As such, by thinking happy thoughts, we create happy energy that attracts happy situations. Easy.

I won’t speak to the magical or unmagical nature of positive thinking – that’s for spiritual gurus and quantum physicists to battle out. However, there are two points I will speak to.

The first is thinking happy thoughts is much easier said than done. Our brains and our psyches are the delicate and convoluted results of millennia of human evolution, and our unique life experiences of successes and pains, and to say, “I’m thinking happy things now,” is ultimately to disregard the layers of unconscious beliefs most of us have internalized over the course of our lives. So, magic or not, it’s unlikely to be as easy as flipping a switch and deciding, “I’m happy forever now.”

The second point I’ll speak to is this; whether it’s magic or not, choosing a positive outlook is absolutely a worthwhile and effective skill to develop.

Notice I call it a skill. That’s a very deliberate description. As I mentioned, we all have beliefs about how the world works, what we believe about ourselves, others, life and love, that stem from our individual life experiences. Unfortunately, for many, that means overcoming debilitating beliefs that reduce our sense of self-worth. When putting deliberate positivity in this context, it absolutely bears qualifying as a skill because it must be honed in the face of opposition. But developing the ability to choose a positive outlook is well worth the effort.

People respond best to positive reinforcement, and we function as our optimal selves when we feel worthy. As such, our emotional state of being serves as the root for the rest of our behaviours. If a stranger spills coffee on you just after you got a sizable raise, you’re likely to be more forgiving than if you arrived to work late only to be faced with a scolding; the thing that determines your reaction is often how your immediate experiences have programmed together with underlying core beliefs your thoughts leading up to that moment. Knowing this, it is possible to use positive thinking to sculpt your life.

Let’s talk career. A habitually unhappy person goes to work grumbling, does their job, and returns home. They don’t take risks because they’re sure they will fail. They don’t ask for a raise because they don’t feel their work reflects their merit (and probably it doesn’t, because they don’t see any value in doing it.) In a state of discontentment, they unconsciously assume any action they take will only lead to more discontentment, so they embrace the banality. This is part of the slippery slope to depression often resulting in and supported by a low-risk lifestyle.

Now consider someone who has created a habit of being happy. They go to work ready to pounce on new opportunities. They commit themselves to reflecting their best in their work, because they believe they will be rewarded for it. Furthermore, they are rewarded for their work because they show not only how much they’re capable of, but also a willingness to grow. They take risks knowing if it doesn’t work out, it will next time. They capitalize on being happy. This is part of the slope upwards towards joy.

In short, positive thinking improves our self-worth. It empowers us to feel more confident, capable, and aware of the big picture. People in possession of these qualities are daring. They’re risk-takers. They go for what they want and have enough self-esteem to know the outcome is not a reflection of their overall value. They also understand taking care of themselves is vital, and don’t think of it as selfishness, or a waste of time.

I don’t know if positive thinking makes magic happen outside of us. I do, however, know it has profound psychological effects. It’s a hard-won skill, but one that’s applicable to every aspect of our lives. So learn it however you can. Pick up the self-help book. Frame it as a battle between you and your internalized beliefs. Write affirmations and daily gratitude journaling or speak lovingly to the mirror or just put your foot down and say, “I’ve got this, damn it!” Fight for the ability to choose happy. It’s worth it.

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