Thursday, 11 July 2013

How positive is positive thinking

Heard of a man named James Paul "Gus" Godsey? JP for short. In 2003, he was bestowed the title "The Happiest Man in America" by USA Weekend Magazine. He was a successful stockbroker, happily married and in the pink of health. Imagine that, being the happiest man in America. How do you even measure something like that?

The question is, "Is he still happy now after about 10 years?" Here's another question in the tradition of the biblical Job, "Take away his
 good life, marriage and health, will he still be happy?" But before I give an update on JP's current status, I would like to share about how positive thinking made me all warm and fuzzy inside but mostly clueless outside.

I had a soft spot for positive thinking. In the days of my youth, I devored books about it. In fact, I have a collection of the subject in my home library. At that time, I wanted more than to know the positive thinking gurus like Norman Vincent
 Peale, Stephen Covey and Anthony Robbin. I wanted to be like them. Who doesn't right? As excited as I was, I thought if I'd followed everything they had to say, their successes could be replicated in my life. I guess no one who were enthralled by these charismatic individuals could refuse their spellbinding hold, right?

Don't get me wrong. I am sure these positive thinking illuminaries meant
 well. Although some of them have attained cult-like following, their philosophy have in fact helped thousands, if not millions, of people. And although I can't say that all of them fully deserved their fame and wealth, I can safely say that their teachings (most of which are a modern adaptation of ancient wisdom) have made a positive difference in the lives of many.

But then I have digressed. My gripe about positive thinking is in fact not with the peddlers of the trade. It is about me. It's about how it applies to me. I know I have to keep a positive outlook in life. I know that whatever happens, I have to believe that things will eventually turn out well. I also know that whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger. But these principles work fine when everything's fine. It is like cheerleading the winning team. You just know that the trophy is within reach and the result's foregone.
 When all's smooth sailing, self help undoubtedly helps.

But here's a caveat. Even when all's smooth sailing, there is always a risk that this rote immersion in positive thinking might create what I call a "euphoric bubble" that makes us
feel invulnerable and unrealistically buoyant. This is definitely not all hunky dory. Historian Jennifer Hechte in fact distinguished three types of happiness we all experience some point in our life. The first is the "relatively mundane good-day type of happiness with 
low-level pleasures. The second is the intermittent emotional fireworks of intense euphoria. And the third is the grounded satisfactions associated with a happy life." (adapted by Dr Stephen Briers in "Psychobabble")

The problem with positive thinking is that its adherents may become dependent on the second type of happiness of "intense euphoria". And such unhealthy dependence makes one ill prepared for a life of growing pains and disappointments. When hard times come, and when the euphoric
 bubble bursts, one may be so disillusioned with life that it is easy to give up the fight altogether. By doing so, he may compromise or undermine the nurturing of the other forms of happiness, that is, the good-day type of happiness and the one that brings grounded satisfactions.

Alas, JK Rowling once said that "life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone's total control." (unlike the world of harry potter where she has full control of penmanship). So, when we are  struggling in a trial, sterile positive self talk somehow may not be as embracing as when
 we are in an airconditioned seminar walking over a makeshift bed of hot coals. And this is also where catchphrases like "the tough gets going" or "ain't no mountain high enough" need to become more than just a cheerleading chorus.

Here I recall this quote, "Trauma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." Indeed it is. I guess all the positive thinking in the world would not help those who choose to give up when the going gets tough. It is therefore the resolve of the beholder that invariably makes
 the difference.

In the Nazi's death camp, the famed survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl once witnessed many prisoners attempting to hang themselves. He was specifically warned not to intervene. Many died this way and they were disposed of like human garbage. But whilst many died, a few, like Victor, survived and even thrived after the war.

My question here is, what distinguishes those who fight and live on and those who give up and die away in the jaws of a trial? Why is it that some beat the odds to survive and others see nothing but a living that is worse than death? Victor called those who see meaning and hope amidst the bleak hopelessness "tragic optimists". These optimists embrace trauma as an inescapable reality but they do not let it overwhelm them.

Another author called it the limelight effect. But this effect has two focus. One shines within and the other without. Those who thrive in a crisis are those who
 turn the "limelight" on themselves. They see themselves as agent of change. They take responsibility for failure and make positive choices to change the situation. This is called internal attribution. However, when the light is shine on those things external, the person sees himself as a victim. He blames the circumstances and feels helpless in changing them. He readily gives up because he does not see any hope for a turnaround. This is external attribution.

In similar vein, another author, psychology professor Stephen
Joseph, distinguishes between reflective rumination and ruminative brooding. He defines reflective rumination as "purposeful turning inward to engage in adaptive problem solving and emotion-focused coping" against ruminative brooding, which as brooding depicts, generally entails "maladaptive thinking pattern".

So the pattern I see here is a person who diligently works on that which he can change and decidedly leave those he can't to be influenced by those he can. And it is this
 surefootedness to see every minute changes in the right direction that raises their hope. When beset by trials that appear hopeless, I observe that the people who persevere harbor no illusions about the reality of their crisis. In other words, they are not the typical head-buried-in-the-sand optimist. 

If anything, they know that they cannot rush through a trial. The dread, the pain and the loss would all have to be experienced and even endured regardless of how much
they want to skip it and pretend it's all a matter of positive brainwashing. They know that no amount of wishful thinking, fanciful wordplay and mental paint brushing can shield them from the raw-ness of the experience. And instead of being holed up in the ivory tower of wistful wishing, they confront the dread, roll up their sleeves and patiently work on overcoming it.

Many may see this as taking a page off the positive thinking manual. But that's the point. It is just a page. The rest of it is basically about living,
most times enduring, and thriving through hard times. This is the bulk of the iceberg underneath the icy waters that I am afraid positive thinking largely glosses over.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who lost his 14 years old son to progeria, a genetic disorder that causes one to age beyond one's age, wrote with admirable honesty these words, "I am a more sensitive, more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron's life and death than I would have been without it. And I would give up all
those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose, I would forego all that spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of our experience, and be what I was fifteen years ago, an average rabbi, an indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help others, and the father of a bright, happy boy. But I cannot choose!"

Now that's raw realism for me; beyond the mollycoddling of feel-good positivity. I guess what distinguishes a card carrying
 positive thinker and a veritable trauma survivor is how a life is lived through the worst of times and not so much on which pair of rose-tinted glasses one chooses to put on.

Those who overcome are usually quiet heroes, unsung even, who take each day as it comes and deal with whatever that day has to bring;
however painful the options available. They celebrate milestones on a day to day basis without the illusion that just thinking about it makes everything alright. In other words, they are stride-pacers and not trial rushers and below is a tribute to such a life.

Rick Rescorla, a decorated purple heart Vietnam war veteran and a security executive at Morgan Stanley, knew what overcoming life's obstacles entails. His story is an inspiring one. Having a nose for terrorism, Rescorla was prescient in
his recommendation to his employers on the security of World Trade Center. After the Pam Am terrorist attack in 1988, Rescorla  and a friend surveyed the twin towers and submitted a report in 1990 that predicted a possible terrorist attack in the tower. He warned that terrorists would plant explosives in the garage to get the world's attention. Nobody took the report seriously.

Three years later, Ramzi Yousef detonated a truck full of explosives underground just as Rescorla had predicted.
 After that, people started to pay attention and Rescorla conducted frequent fire drill exercises for the employees of Morgan Stanley, whose offices were located in a few floors of Tower 2. Here's where Rescorla's uncanny crystal ball skills really shine. 

After the basement attack in 1993, he did another prediction and forewarned that the next possible terroist plot was the navigation of a cargo plane full of explosives into the tower. Not wanting to risk it, Rescorla actually recommended that Morgan Stanley move its offices elsewhere.
 However, this was not an economically viable option since its lease only ends in 2006.

Accepting the situation as it is, Rescorla continued with the evacuation drill for 8 years and made sure every employees knew the escape route by heart. This was not easy since such drills were highly disruptive and many of the employees, especially those big time investment bankers, were less than pleased by the disruption. Nevertheless, Rescorla pressed on.

In the meantime, Rescorla fell in love and got married. His marriage changed his life and he was never happier. Even when he contracted cancer, and had to undergo the painful treatment, he was still upbeat about life. Then came 911 when the planes crashed into the two towers. 

In the book "The Unthinkable", author Amanda Ripley describes the crucial moment as such, "Rescorla grabbed his bullhorn, his walkie talkie, and his cell phone and began systematically ordering
 Morgan Stanley employees to get out. They already knew what to do, even 250 visitors who were taking a stockbroker training class had already been shown the nearest stairway."

In the crowded stairwell, Rescorla calmed the jangled nerves of the evacuees by singing into his bullhorn. Between songs, he managed to call his wife and told her this, "Stop crying...I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made
 my life."

After Rescorla evacuated a majority of Morgan Stanley's employees, he returned to the tower and was last seen rushing up to the tenth floor before the tower collapsed. Many believed that Rescorla went back to save a senior staff who was left behind. He died the same way he lived his life, that is, a selfless samaritan dedicated to making a difference in the world.

What made Rescorla's life so 
inspiring is not so much that he had sacrificed his life for others. It was more about how he had lived it before that. He saw his job as a life's mission, a sacred calling, and he derived meaning from it. I am sure Rescorla would have thought about being hopeful, staying positive and believing in himself. But I think he went further and lived a life dedicated to meaning. It was a life that engages with its challenges in a way that intrinsically empowered him with a sense of autonomy,
 effectiveness and self mastery. He grew to love what he did because he knew he could make a difference and indeed he has.

In the end, overcoming and thriving in a crisis takes more than thinking positive (or happy) thoughts. I believe that many situations call for us to go beyond positive thinking. It therefore goes beyond the illusory magic of "naming it and claiming it" or "thinking and growing rich" or "positive confession". It has to be something more enduring. It has to be something that goes beyond giving mental assent to airy-fairy hope. More importantly, it is a life that seeks out meaning in a crisis, responds with
 hope and realism, and adapts effectively to changes.

At this juncture, I am reminded of this, "Love is not blind. It sees more, not less. And because it sees more, it is willing to see less." An overcoming life shares the same magnanimity with love. It sees far and wide. And because it sees far and wide, beyond the trial, it is prepared to endure more, not less.

I end here with an update of JP's life which I'd promised you. You'd recall that he was awarded the title "The
Happiest Man in America" in 2003. At that time, everything was going well for him. But now, about 10 years later, all that has changed. He got divorced, left his lucrative job as a stockbroker for 25 years, and had prostate cancer surgery. He even lost his home. The question is, is he still happy? Not surprisingly, he said that he's still very happy. 

JP remarked, "We should be grateful for what we have and not upset for the things we don't have." He even wrote a book attesting to how he still believes in
 an affirmative mindset. His contented mind can be gleaned from what he once remarked, "Everybody wants to be in the front row and ride in a limo to a Sinatra concert. It's possible to enjoy it on black and white TV too."

Should there be a poster boy for positive thinking, I guess JP would fit the bill. But to stop there would do him no justice. If there is one thing I can learn from JP, it is his ability to transcend from cheerleading-like clich├ęs about positive thinking to living it out with conviction and courage. His
 life breathes life into his words and that is to me the missing piece of the whole positive thinking puzzle. Cheerz.

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