I used to think that positive thinking never worked for me because I just wasn’t fully committed to it. I thought it must just be one of those mind over matter things where if you could absolutely, completely, convince yourself you were happy, you would be. And maybe that’s true, but let me tell you, it’s definitely the hard way into positivity and I’ve only ever felt worse from attempting it.
So, if I gave up on even attempting positive thinking, how did I get happier? Well, I didn’t give up so much as I remodeled it. I stopped thinking of it as positive thinking and started thinking of it as productive thinking.
Before I elaborate, I just want to say that I didn’t come up with this reconstruction all on my own. I’ve started regularly using planners from The Happiness Planner and, while they didn’t call it productive thinking, it was their approach to negative things that led me to that title.
At the very beginning of the planner, there’s a section where you have to write in the things that make you feel bad. I fully expected myself to skip this part. I deal with quite a bit of anxiety and off and on depression, so I have a lot of negative thoughts floating around my mind for little to no reason to begin with. Actively trying to pull negativity with actual reasons behind it to the surface on top of that sends me into the Land of Nope Nopity Nope Nope Not Today Nope.
But, because I’m also a fairly motivated and determined person and I wanted to complete the entire planner, I filled it out anyway. To my surprise, instead of freaking out, I actually felt better. This I credit entirely to the format of the planner (I promise I’m not associated with it I just thought it was really good). It doesn’t just tell you to write down the things that make you feel bad and then focus on positive things instead. The exact process it guides you through is: “What makes you feel upset? Is it beyond your control? If not, how can you change it?”
It sounds so obvious whenever I repeat it to anyone, but after years of having things like “Happy thoughts only!” and “Focus on the good!” drilled into my mind under the guise of positive thinking, it didn’t even occur to me anymore to just acknowledge a bad situation, ask myself if I could do anything about it, and either let it go if I couldn’t or get to work if I could.
I took this line of thinking outside the planner and immediately felt a huge release. It wasn’t a magic cure-all solution, but it was light-years better than my old attempts at positive thinking.
See, this is what my head used to look like when I tried to “think positive”:
“Man, it’s been a really bad day. I feel awful.
Oh, wait — that’s a negative thought! Uhhh, okay, positive thought, positive thought . . .
I feel good. There, yeah, I feel good! The rest of today’s gonna be good. Just smile, be happy.
I’m lying. I feel awful. I’ve had a bad day and I feel awful.
No! I feel GOOD! Everything’s GREAT! Look, I’m SMILING!
Maybe I should just go audition for that muppet on Sesame Street who lives in the trash.”
The end result is that by trying to push out the “bad thoughts,” I end up dwelling on what made me feel bad way longer than I would have if I’d just acknowledged that I was having a bad day and moved on.
It’s like trying to teach yourself math just by saying “Think mathematically.” Where are the steps? Where are the formulas? Where are the practice sheets? It just doesn’t work. You’ll end up staring at the first problem all day trying to will your brainwaves into working like Einstein’s.
Not to mention, even if you succeed in warping a bad situation into a good one, you’ll start getting dependent on being able to happify everything, and there are some things in life that just aren’t happy and aren’t meant to be.
Productive thinking is about steps. It’s about making progress. It’s about keeping yourself moving forward no matter how you feel. It’s about letting go of the things you can’t change instead of trying to force them into the positivity mold.
This is my thought process now that my aim is to think productively:
“Wow, I feel really bad today. Well, sometimes going for a walk makes me feel better, so I’ll try that, but if it doesn’t work out, I’ll accept that I just feel bad today and keep going anyway because bad days are okay, too.”
You’ll probably still hear me use the term “positive thinking” just because it’s what I and most other people are used to, but in my opinion it tends to lead people in the wrong direction. It’s okay to focus on the good. It’s okay to do everything you can to try to make yourself and others feel good. What’s not okay is trying to force everything into the Box of Goodness.
Consider positivity your pet cat. If you try to pick it up and put it where you want it, it’ll keep getting up and walking away. But if you leave it be and get to work, you’ll turn around to find it sprawled across all your belongings.