Dale Carnegie’s positive thinking books featured large on our bookshelves in the sixties/seventies. My dad was an insurance salesman – a tough job in the highly competitive life market. Roy would leave home in his big camel coloured Valiant – heading out across the country on a Monday morning, returning exhausted on a Thursday afternoon. Having spent the week keeping himself and (when he became the boss) ‘his guys’ focused and motivated.
His job meant we moved towns pretty much every two years. Into a hotel, then a rented flat, and finally to a house, built under my mom’s watchful eye. My brother and I went to a new school each time. We were always the new kids.
Glenis stayed home with us during the week. By 1971 there were four children and she had turned home making into an art. We had our rituals and treats. But we grew up in a boundaried household – where no nonsense was tolerated. And it ran ‘like clockwork’ (her words): we knew what we were doing, and when and where. We even knew what we would be eating for dinner (always together) on any given day. I think this contained my brother and me – and helped us to deal with the constant change.
I don’t recall my parents ever showing anxiety or fear in the moves we made. They had their faith that proscribed certain ways of viewing the world. And Dad had his books – Carnegie and Edward de Bono (the ultimate lateral thinker) among them – to explain any anomalies. For sofabrother and me, showing anxiety simply wasn’t an option. So we ‘kept calm and carried on’.
It’s not that way anymore. I watch my mom and dad wrestle with the challenges thrown at them now and I see how absolutely they are impacted. Their resilience seems to have been eroded over the years, by age, sure: but also seemingly by an exhaustion of being positive. And by the blunt reality that some of the worst, did actually happen.
New Year emails from friends far and wide have talked of continued unemployment, of loss of love, of money worries, loneliness and displacement – and fears that it will never be fixed. As I have been responding to my pals, I have internalised their woes – adding them to mine … and have found myself in Bleak House over the past couple of days.
With the usual concerns: job, money, family. But with the future too: South Africa is chaotic. Beset by mine- and farm-worker strikes, violent service delivery protests and governmental bullying of press and business. Graphically gainsaying our President’s public assurances (to potential investors at Davos) that “all is good” (he must believe that no-one reads the news). My mind is full of “what ifs” and vague fears – and I must have been leaking my anxieties via blackberry to LA. Because I received an email from camparigirl, instructing me wryly to: “relax and don’t spend too much time in your head”.
Which got me wondering: what was that hardiness that carried us all through in the wonder years? Did we not fully understand what was going on, or did we just face life more positively in those days?
So I went back to the books – not to de Bono, and Carnegie because I don’t have them here. But to some of the Positive Thinking gurus – Tal Ben-Shahar, Mihal Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high” which I love given what he does for a living) and Martin Seligman, all of whom reside on my Kindle. And here’s what I came away with.
The 7 things Positive People are thinking:
1. It’s a challenge, but I will cope.
2. It’s not a good outcome, but it is not the end of the world.
3. Never mind this failure – I will bounce back.
4. It’s a difficult problem – but I will find a solution.
5. It’s not about me – I won’t take it personally.
6. It’s only temporary – I’ll put it behind me.
7. Yes I made a mistake, but I will learn from it and improve
They expect the best, but are ready for the worst. They don’t look for perfection – recognising it to be the ultimate quicksand. Positive Thinking is fluid, not mired down with fear and worry. Doesn’t work – I’ll figure something out/do something new. For the positive thinker – it’s not a disaster but a brave new world.
All well and good, but how can I start thinking like that? Maybe I am just not built that way? Possibly – Seligman and Ben-Shahar believe Positive People share 5 particular characteristics which allow them to move forward:
1. easy acceptance: they are not over critical of people (selves included)/situations
2. kindness to themselves: they celebrate their achievements/forgive their failures
3. resilience in adversity – if they get knocked down, they get up and try again
4. a sense of humour: they can laugh at themselves/situations and don’t take themselves too seriously
5. attitude of gratitude: they take time to remember and appreciate what they have
They decide to be positive. And design their thoughts that way. Positivity is a muscle to be flexed.
Each of the writers emphasised one critical point: a decision can only become a habit if we practice it regularly. I’m going to quote Oprah Winfrey here – not my usual go to girl for wisdom – but I certainly can’t deny her positive/can do attitude and how it has worked for her. She was asked how she gets herself to run five miles every day and she said: “I recommit to it every day of my life”.
So, I am out of my head and back on track. I realise that I will never operate in the complete absence of fear. Perhaps it is necessary to keep me focused, or perhaps it is something I learned to listen to each time I walked into a new classroom – and now it is a protective reflex. But, as camparigirl said at the end of her email: “I have come to the conclusion that fear is the hand that pushes us off the cliff and helps us to decide. The future will take care of itself”.