Imagine a young businessman who is sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison for the alleged murder of his wife and her lover; a crime he never committed. He has to do time in a horrible jail with inhuman conditions and sadistic prison wards who enjoy torturing the inmates for fun. If that wasn’t bad enough, the prison is of course also packed with brutal criminals. However, our business man manages to slowly build positive relationships with the inmates as well as with the prison wardens. Even more importantly, he stays mentally intact, and after 19 long years, he finally manages to escape from this torture to start a new life in freedom.
This is the story of Andy Dufresne played by Tim Robbins in the famous movie “Shawshank Redemption.”
What kept Andy alive and sane over all those years? His positivity. He stayed positive and optimistic no matter how bleak the situation was. His positivity proved to be infectious and also helped his fellow inmates with his optimistic spirit. He sent a strong message: while the body may be locked away in a cell, the spirit can never be imprisoned.
Heroes are positive
In a 2010 study, researchers found that people identified as heroes were more likely to put a positive spin on negative events. Even more so, heroes are positive thinkers by nature, which contributes to their ability to look past the immediate danger of a situation and see a more optimistic outcome.
Heroes know that even in the darkest moments, there are positive turns ahead. Somewhere. Disaster can be a gift. If events don´t go to plan, you can´t change the events, but you can change the plan.
But what does positivity mean? Well, in its purest form, it is the practice of being positive or optimistic in attitude. People with a high grade of positivity and optimism react to issues with a sense of confidence and belief that negative incidents are temporary and manageable.
Positivity predicts a longer life
Let’s take a look at the advantages of staying positive and optimistic.
Research and countless studies in the field of positive psychology suggest: being positive is healthy; and not only mentally but also physically. The sheer act of being more positive and optimistic can not only boost your immune system, but it can also prevent you from chronic diseases, and even predict a longer life.
Optimism indeed may be one of the most important predictors of physical health. Since optimists experience less distress through their positive attitude, they are less prone to suffer from anxiety disorders and depression.
As opposed to pessimists, people with a positive attitude are less likely to be in denial and do not distance themselves from the problem. Instead, they actively tackle issues and accept the situation’s reality.
Thus, optimists not only have a coping advantage over pessimists but they also have a better chance to learn from difficulties and mistakes as they acknowledge and face them rather than ignore them.
Oh, and having a sunny disposition can have a profound impact on your romantic life: researchers at the University of Oregon found that people with a positive attitude are not only perceived as more attractive but also tend to be happier in their relationships; and it doesn’t matter if just one partner in a relationship is an optimist.
The lesson here is: if you really cannot be an optimist, at least date one. It will do your relationship good. Really.
So, as we just seen, positivity can have profound effects not only on your mind but also on your physical health.
Don’t be the fool on the hill
However, are there any downsides of being positive?
Here are some words of caution: Optimists tend to underestimate risks, which can be especially in moments of imminent physical danger an undesirable thing to do. Just think of the fool who is joyfully walking towards the cliff with his head in the air. He never expects to be falling anytime soon.
Optimists are also less critical to deceitful strangers and thus more prone to be cheated.
Research suggests that overly optimistic people are not well prepared for adverse life events as it doesn’t fit their world view. When there is a significant mismatch between our beliefs and the outcome we get frustrated and disappointed.
The problem with too much positive thinking is that we might only visualize the glorious moment of victory in front of our inner eye: receiving an academy award on stage, crossing the finishing line after our first Olympics or marrying the movie actress we are secretly in love with.
However, mentally achieving the goal has, of course, nothing to do with actually achieving it. A better way is to not only dream about the success as an end goal but also about all the obstacles and hurdles that are in the way and how we can overcome them. With a positive mindset, of course.
To conclude: it is definitely advantageous to be guided generally by a positive outlook. However, it is even better to curb your sunny disposition at times with a small dose of realism or even pessimism to prevent you from taking unnecessary risks or acting recklessly.
The key is to be balanced. Suppressing any negativity will neither make it disappear nor will it make any inherent dangers smaller in reality.
Celebrate your positivity but be optimistically realistic!
Positivity can be learned
The remaining question is: are we born as optimists and pessimists? Well, there is an ongoing nature vs. nurture debate, and, yes, it is true that some people are born more optimistic than others.
However, there is a strong case that positive thinking and optimism can be learned.
One step to being more positive, and as a fiction writer and daydreamer I hate to say this, is to separate fact from fiction. Most of our negative thoughts are, well, just thoughts. They mostly have very little to do with reality.
Thus, next time you ruminate on negative feelings, combat them with a quick fact-check: Is there really no way out? Is the situation unchangeable and hopeless? Will this setback last forever? The answer to all of those questions is almost always a definite no; negative thoughts very rarely survive the clash with reality. Reality is your best friend against pessimism!
Another remedy against too much negativity is living a life with a clear purpose. If you live a purpose, setbacks are just minor bumps on your long journey to fulfill your life mission. Remind yourself of the whyof your life and negative events will drown in the sea of unimportance.
If things look bleak, another quick fix is to focus on one positive element. If you cannot think of a positive in the present moment, I bet there is one from a past event you can pull off the ground. Any positive thought can refocus your brain’s attention to the good.
As Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Showing gratitude is another essential element on your way to being more positive. There has been much academic research recently on the advantages of being grateful and why it helps your positivity.
Grateful people have been found to be more positive, have a greater sense of belonging and fewer depressions and stress. It is good sometimes to stand still and remind yourself of all the beauty in your life. I bet there is a loooot. Start a gratefulness journal and write on a daily basis about things you feel grateful for. Capture your good memories, because if you forget them, it´s as though they didn´t happen.
Oh, and, yes, do stay away from negative people. They drag you down. Instead, enjoy the company of people who display a positive mindset. They inspire you.
Especially ignore naysayers! They are prepared to say no to everything. Always remember how Emperor Joseph II rejected one of the biggest music geniuses of all times, Amadeus Mozart when he presented him his music: “Too many notes, Mozart, and too beautiful for our ears.”
In story terms, naysayers are called threshold guardians or gatekeepers. These are the people who decide whether you will make it to the next level or not. E.g., the publisher whom you send your book proposal to, the casting agent whom you audition for or the HR lady who receives your CV. Most often they are negative, and they will say no. Usually, they are instructed to say no. They are conditioned to say no. They will say no and no and no.
Accept these naysayers as an integral part of your story and your life journey. Some people will even envy you and try to discourage you. Stay positive and regard every no as part of your long way to success.
Naysayers can even redirect you to another, a better path of your journey: you might have a straight path in your head but then you meet those naysayers, and they reject you and send you on an unplanned detour. But in hindsight, this might turn out to be a better path. Thus, stay positive and bless all the naysayers on your journey… they most likely did you a favor.
Heroes have a shot at a silver lining
All heroes are positive.
Well, almost all of them. Admittedly, there are those Woody Allen-type anti-heroes who are somewhat skeptical about life in general, who always expect the worst and even feel guilty when they are in good spirits once in a while. However, there is a reason why they are called anti-heroes and often merely serve as a reminder of how not to approach life.
In general, heroes tackle their adventures with a great deal of positivity. Would Luke Skywalker have attacked the Death Star with his tiny spaceship if he had been dwelling on negative things? Would Rocky have gotten up over and over again to fight back if he had been hopeless about his situation? Would Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption have survived 19 years of unjustified imprisonment without a positive outlook? No, no and no.
Heroes know that there is always something good out there. There is still a way out. No situation, no matter how difficult it is, is hopeless.
As Andy in the Shawshank redemption says: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
The movie “Silver Lining Playbooks” is based on the promise that positivity can save your life. The Bradley Cooper character comes back from a severe mental breakdown and only by going out, taking on running and trying to be positive about everything he slowly gets out of his misery.
At one point, he tells his state-appointed therapist, “I hate my illness, and I want to control it. This is what I believe to be true: You have to do everything you can and if you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining.”
As a reward for staying positive, he gets Jennifer Lawrence and mental sanity in the end.
Think of Matthew McConaughey in the excellent film Dallas Buyers Club. It is the true story of a rodeo rider who was one of the first people ever to be infected with HIV.
Instead of dwelling on all the negative aspects and waiting for the virus to kill him slowly, he starts fighting and living: He kicks off campaigns for humane medical treatment for HIV patients. Doing so, he helps not only him but thousands of others to live a healthier and longer life.
Attitude often defines the outcome
Next time you encounter a problematic situation think of Winston Churchill’s famous words that “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Now decide whom you want to be.
German philosopher Schopenhauer once said that the quality of life is determined by how we interpret our experience, not by the experience themselves. True words.
We always have the choice to be positive or negative in any situation. No darkness continues forever. Every tunnel has a light at the end, even if we don´t see it yet. On the contrary, everybody can find a reason to hate themselves.
The last lesson comes from the great Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t…either way, you are right.”
Attitude often defines the outcome: Think positive, and there is a higher likelihood that results will be positive, too. Heroes do.