Power of positive: The difference positive thinking can make in life and business

Monday, December 20, 2010
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From all I've read about the subject of positive thinking, I'm amazed we have to give ourselves pep talks about thinking forward. The human mind has evolved to be the engine of our successes; we are naturally biased toward positive thoughts about desired goals. Interestingly, this makes us something less than rational and objective; it's well understood that most of us aren't really dominated by logic and careful deliberation.

We know what we want and need and spend most of our waking hours moving in that direction. Usually, we engage in something called "motivated reasoning," which is our way of putting the label "good" on the things we want to have anyway. And speaking of motivation, the entire subject of positive thought tends to, in my opinion, understate the role and importance of emotional intelligence. Without a mature and honest appreciation of the things we desire and value without having to spend one minute thinking about them -- love, friendship, community, and joy -- our positive thoughts and belief systems are a little bit like a gospel quartet, without the robes, the rhythm, the pulse and beat that give that warm feeling and make it a meaningful experience. So I recommend keeping both thoughts and feelings engaged and in balance.

But of course this doesn't always describe the way people actually live their lives, and that raises the issue of negative thinking, especially fear. Fear isn't a bad thing, obviously; it keeps us alive in the face of imminent threat. But if we let it dominate our thinking and feeling, the consequences are well understood. Fear causes us to focus -- to the exclusion of alternatives and opportunities -- on the immediate threat. Or to tune out. Studies of individuals who have had a gun pointed at them, for example, show that they later can only recall the gun and their single-minded focus on the threat: not the person holding it, nor the situation, the place, what they were thinking, how else they might have coped with the situation. Each of us is the product of the ideas we let past our perceptual defenses, and we mostly manage to ignore or jettison information that doesn't fit our world view, or causes psychological discomfort. So fear has its adaptive advantages, but it also can become a trap, because it will keep you from thinking and feeling clearly when opportunities are right in front of you. From seeing. That's the best argument I have for positive thinking; the alternative can only lead to disappointment. Negative advertising in politics works (unfortunately!) because it creates doubt. And fear and negative thought is really nothing more than a negative campaign against... yourself.

Finally, I'll just paraphrase John Dewey, who believed that nothing good happens in our lives that wasn't already envisioned BEFORE we acted. So what does this mean? Positive thought, without positive action, and a view of what's possible and desirable is meaningless. Your emotions give direction to that powerful engine of thought; only they can produce meaningful and satisfying goals for your life. Visualize those goals and then act on that vision. Self-defeating notions are self-fulfilling ones; perhaps Dewey would say that some persons -- those who focus on fear, their limitations, and past failures, for example -- secretly wish for failure. But even failures are opportunities. Emotional intelligence and positive thought enable us to learn from our failures. Learn, feel, fail, then succeed: the shortest path to success is right through the middle of life's challenges. Obviously, not a word of this leads to business success, but life is a business, too. Business success is best built on the solid ground of clear, positive thought, the person you want to become and a view of how to get there. It takes all three.

John Cherry is a professor at the Harrison College of Business at Southeast Missouri State University.

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