Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Much Positive Thinking is Too Much? Or Not Enough?

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Get Back in the Positive Water.

Eureka! Here is some crazy crazy news from the world of Positive Thinking that is guaranteed to confuse both you eternal optimists AND those of you cynical folks who have long grown tired of shiny, happy people holding hands.

It concerns the controversy over the Magic Number, the Positivity Ratio. 

Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has carved out a niche for herself as the world’s leading expert on positivity—including all the varying flavors of emotion one might class as positive: joy, love, pride, hope, awe, amusement, compassion, appreciation, interest, gratitude, and inspiration.  In order to study the positive, she also had to class the emotions that we experience as negative:  fear, anger, doubt, boredom, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, shame etc.

In 2005, Fredrickson and fellow researcher Marcial Losada published a very famous study citing a very specific ratio of positivity to negativity—a “golden ratio,”—that tips the scales towards living a happy, exciting, fulfilling life.

This ratio was 3:1.

It was not 1:1.  It wasn’t even 2:1, which some people claim is the ratio for the average American. (How on earth would we verify this?)

No, According to the study, people who experience twice as many positive emotions as negative emotions are overall “no happier” than those whose negative emotions equal or exceed their positive ones  (I don’t quite understand how this could be, but let’s leave this technicality aside for a moment).

No, according to Fredrickson and Losada, it’s 3:1.  People who have one instance of a negative emotion for every three instances of positive emotion tend to flourish and excel, across the board.  Those with more negative instances do not. 

Unfortunately for those who had hung their hats on this golden ratio (including the unfortumate Fredrickson and Losada), last August, 2013, the math behind it was proven to be complete crap. 

Which is a disappointment, because there were so many things I really liked about this “mathematical certainty” for how much positive is positive and how much negative is also positive.

For example: for those of you who (like me) really hate it when people say, “well, everything happens for a reason.”  (Yes, okay, but this doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD reason), the positivity ration also argued that there’s a LIMIT to how much positivity is good for us to have. 

According to Fredrickson and Losada, once the ratio goes beyond 10:1, it seems that our self-efficacy turns into self-delusion.  You know all that stuff that your parents used to warn you about your “pie-in-the-sky/Pollyanna/woo-woo” thinking?  Well, if you go past the 10:1 mark, they were right—you ARE likely to crash and burn.

In other words, we WANT some of our negative emotions alive and kicking because they give us important feedback on what’s happening both internally and externally.

Despite the debunking of Losada and Fredrickson’s math, I think that this is still true.  I also think there’s still good sense in this statement from Fredrickson:

“Levity is that unseen source that lifts you skyward, whereas gravity is the opposing force that pulls you earthward.  Unchecked levity leaves you flighty, ungrounded, and unreal.  Unchecked gravity leaves you collapsed in a heap of misery.  Yet, when properly combined, these two opposing forces leave you buoyant.”  (Frederickson, Positivity, Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life)

Agreed.  Even if the research wasn't so "top-notch" after all.

All this wonderful news about negativity (or all this negative debunking of positivity) really makes me feel quite positive, because ever since I started down the Yellow Brick Road of Spiritual Healing and Self-Improvement, I’ve felt quite negative about giving up all my negative emotions. 

I especially don’t like it because I’ve spent so much of my life hiding these emotions from myself and from others, that now when I actually CAN experience a genuine negative emotion authentically, that the last thing I want is some well-meaning transformed-n-enlightened idiot in my face explaining how I will feel different once I get aligned, get in-tune, let go of my story, etc. 

Well, yes, OF COURSE I’ll feel better, but just give me a second to do this other thing, okay?  Why do we have to be in such a goddamned hurry to feel good all the goddamned time?  I mean, I agree that it feels better to feel good than to feel bad, but you know what else feels good?  Telling the truth about my own personal experience, that’s what.

The best part is that I've been that very same well-meaning idiot myself, so many times.  It IS hard to be with people who are suffering--especially me.  It's bad enough when YOU feel bad. It's even worse when it's me.

Now, in my forties, I am back to doing what I did very naturally as a little kid.  When I find someone I love who's fallen down a dark hole, first I climb down in there with them.  Yuck.  I remember what what it's like down here.  

Next, once we have both agreed that A) Yes, we are in this hole, and this hole exists, and it sucks, and B) many people who haven't fallen down this hole will tell you that everything happens for a reason, which we'll be sure to remind them of if they ever fall down it, then we can get to C) Is there any way to start building a ladder so we can take a couple steps back up towards the surface?

All in all, even if the positivity math was debunked, I think there's a lot to be said to the 3:1 ratio.  At least, at this point in my life it seems pretty sound.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Bad News About Positive Thinking.


So my friend Kerry is going through a really nasty divorce.  The kind where there’s been some subtle but persistent domestic abuse.  The kind of domestic abuse that doesn’t show, except that there’s five physically beautiful people in this family—parents and children—and yet, when you look at some of their family photos, you might see something in their faces that all the dynamic bone structure and giant eyes in the world can’t quite conceal.

And things have built to a point where pretty much everybody wants out.  Except there’s no easy way out, for many excellent reasons.  And one is that all the money belongs to the dad’s family and they aren’t too keen on family disintegration, being of the fundamental religious “family values” persuasion.

And that’s just one reason.  If you’ve ever been part of a family, you can probably imagine some of the others.

Kerry gives me her bravest, brightest smile, and tells me that “Things are hard, but I’m trying to stay positive.”

I hold her hand and think, “Oh, crap.”

Don’t get me wrong—I am a big fan of the power of positive thinking.  I’ve been in some fairly dark places myself, and it was in those very places that I discovered just how quickly and strangely things can change once you make a choice to change your consciousness, to expand beyond your own personal “business as usual.”

You probably know what Einstein had to say:  “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”

You’ve probably heard what Gandhi had to say:  “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

And the reason you’ve probably heard these things is that people all over the world are sharing them like never before, thanks to our friend The Internet, and our other friend, The Shift. 

If you’re not as familiar with this second friend, the short story on The Shift is that many wisdom leaders around the world agree that we are living through a time of unprecedented speed, complexity, and transition—a time when there are more people on the planet than ever before who are waking up to the realization that we are each the creators of our own reality, and we each have the potential to tell a new story.

Some of these visionaries claim that the speedball combo of all this intensity and interconnectedness is also contributing the inevitable breakdown of familiar but fundamentally flawed social systems, and that this breakdown is necessary in the same way it’s necessary for a caterpillar to become a big pile of indeterminate goo inside a pod before it somehow reassembles its cells to form a butterfly.

So.  Perhaps this is why we get to experience fun things like worldwide financial systems merrily restructuring themselves—who doesn’t enjoy a good foreclosure and the destruction of our personal dreams after some delightful sub-prime mortgage experiments in which we didn’t quite know we were participating?

And then there’s the survivors of family fallout, the dads who thought the whole point was to be glitteringly successful but also soccer-dad sensitive, the moms who believed that so long as you could raise an adorable family while maintaining the face, figure, and professional ambition of a twenty-five-year old, it was all going to turn out fine.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but as Americans, Goddammit, no matter what happens, you gotta stay positive.  You gotta stay open.  You gotta keep moving. 

We are the most relentlessly positive nation in the world, which for the most part, serves us well, I think. 

And yet, social psychologists say that only 25% of us report ourselves as being “overall, very happy,” a percentage that has stayed fairly consistent over the sixty or so years that social psychologists have roamed this earth to ask these questions and report these findings.

Which brings me back to Kerry and my initial reaction to her declaration. 

It’s not that I don’t believe she and her family members can find a way out of this hell into true happiness. 

Is it probable? Hell, I don’t know.  But it is possible, since there is a natural force in each human being that calls us to happiness.

It’s not that I don’t believe in this force, and that one name for it is Love, and that Love can find a way to illuminate the darkest places, and build bright new things out of even the most tangled messes.  If we open ourselves to It.  And sometimes, even when we don’t.  

Or that’s what I’ve found out, so far.

No, it’s not that I don’t believe in the power of positive. It’s just that I always get a little nervous when I’m talking to anyone (including myself) who’s trying to put icing on a shit cake.

What I will say to Kerry, if I can find the courage, is that while positive is good, it’s also okay to be really mad. It’s also an excellent thing, if you can stand it, to grieve like a banshee. 

You don’t have to do either of these things for a long time. In fact, it’s better if you don’t.  Just give yourself a short time to feel the feelings fully, and, gross and horrible and Un-American as they may be, they will pass on through. 

After all, the very word, emotion—it’s just “e” + “motion,” so it’s best to let it move. 

If you’re worried that once you start crying you might never stop, or that once you feel anger you might just go ahead and kill pretty much everyone you know, there’s all kinds of people who can help you and hold you to prevent death by never-ending tears or that old machete you just happen to keep in your garage.

These people go by many names: therapists, spiritual leaders, healers, life coaches, friends, mentors, sponsors, teachers, and even (in some select cases, if you’re very fortunate) family members.

What’s most important about the person you select is that he or she won’t try to fix you.  Instead, he/she will listen carefully, quietly, and hold you in a space of love and approval where you are totally safe to vent, to let the emotion get in motion. Once you’ve had a chance to do that, this person may offer a different perspective, but only once you’ve had your say.

If you select someone who’s not a professional listener—and sometimes, even when you do—it usually works best to let this person know that you just need to talk, to be heard, and don’t require anything but a good and spacious listening.

If you don’t have access to any of these people (or think you don’t), my friend Ginger Bowler, an incredible healer and teacher, says that EFT—Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as “tapping”—is one of the very best self-help techniques available for clearing trauma of either the fresh or festered variety. 

You can get a free tutorial on how to do this at creator Gary Craig’s website:

And finally here’s a method that sometimes works for me: 

Find a quiet place where you can be alone, but can also make noise, if you find it necessary.

Get yourself in touch with an image or energy of Love, Power, and Clarity. Something very, very strong, incomparably strong, who also happens to love the absolute shit out of you. 

To get the right flavor of this, you can picture or think of this energy as God, Goddess, Angels, Buddha, your ancestors, your awesome dead grandma, The Universe, a beloved animal, the ocean at sunset.  Personally, I often go for a combo.

I promise you that the exact image, name, or idea doesn’t matter so much.  Just tap into the idea of something really powerful that also approves of you. And can handle whatever fireballs you need to throw.  And is happy to listen

So. With these horribly vague instructions, how do you know you’ve got the right “idea” to support you?

You’ll feel like you are safe (or at least, somewhat safer) and in a safe place to say exactly what you need to say.  You can rant, cry, scream guttural screams, burn small non-living items, whatever supports you in your quest for self-expression.

If you feel stupid talking, crying, or screaming to yourself, writing it down (perhaps as a letter) is an excellent way to let the folks in the complaint department know you are not, in fact, having the best day ever.   

Don’t try to be enlightened. Don’t try to be transformed.  Don’t be “adult” or “appropriate.”  Just tell the truth.

You’ll know when you’re done, because you’ll feel some relief.  You’ll feel cleaner and clearer.  You might feel relatively “empty,” like there’s finally some room in your noodle for something new to arise.

Now, you’re ready for some positive thinking. 

Which I’ll talk about in my next post, but if you want to move ahead to the positive, I’m pretty sure you can find a thing or two about it on the internet while you’re waiting for me to catch up. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Greetings, Fellow Spiritual Enthusiasts.

So today I’m taking a look at one of my very favorite forms of personal spiritual enlightenment: Enlightening Others.

This is one of the ways you can tell that your Love For Humanity might be intersecting with your Love for Your Own Opinion.  When you feel called upon to point out to other people exactly where they are going wrong.

Especially people you don't know, especially when they're just minding their own business.

But you can tell that they're really asking for your help. Secretly. With their minds. You can almost hear them crying out for your special guidance, and so you go ahead and gently correct the error of their ways.

Now I want to make clear that this is nothing like going around knocking on the doors of complete strangers and asking them if they've heard the Good News about Jesus.

No, in my case, in the particular instance I’m about to relate, it’s much classier. More sophisticated.  It’s more like knocking on the heads of complete strangers and forcing them to confront the Good News about Buddha.

Of course you’re detecting a hint of self-deprecation here.  But this can be one of those tricky things about being human, or in this specific case, being me. 

See, here’s the thing.  On the one hand, there’s what we could call my Essential Self, and this self really loves God, loves spirituality (in both theory and practice!) and loves sharing ideas and experiences with other people.

On the other hand, we have my Social Self, or my Ego Self, also known to our friend Eckhart Tolle as “Mind.” This self really loves showing off all the cool stuff I know.  Or think I know. I also used to be an English teacher, for whom a really great day was explaining the proper use of semicolons, so let’s just acknowledge we’ve got that in the mix as well.

This, it seems to me, is one of the ongoing problems of the human experience.  It’s very easy for our Authentic/Essential selves to get repackaged by the Ego. Or, as one of my good friends says, “Yesterday’s Transformation can so easily become today’s Ego Trip.”

Here’s how this particular mix of Good Intentions and Confused Agenda looked on this particular day a few years back.  You can be the judge of how things turned out.

I'm sitting at Barnes & Noble reading a copy of Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention. I like reading Wayne Dyer because he's so knowledgeable about so many different religions, and so good at pointing out the elements they have in common. It gives me the illusion that I actually know pretty much the same amount as Wayne, so I don't have to go to the trouble of learning about all those different religions myself.

I'm sitting in one of those quartets of chairs around a small wooden table, and an elderly man and woman in two of the other chairs, strangers to each other, begin a conversation about being elderly.

"It's hard getting older, harder than you might think," the woman says.

"Well, that's what life is about, like the Buddhism says," replies the man. "Life is suffering, that's what they said, and so it's best for us to just accept it."

The woman smiles back at him shyly, happily. "Is that right?"

Here's my chance! I come up from my book and beam a benevolent grin at them both. "Actually, that's not quite right. The Buddha said that it's our THOUGHTS that cause suffering, not life itself."

The woman raises carefully penciled eyebrows in my direction, politely acknowledging my unexpected entrance into the conversation.

The man glares at me. "No, that's not right, it's our desires that cause all the trouble. That's what the Buddha realized. It is wrong to desire." He turns hopefully desiring eyes to the woman's face.  She twinkles back encouragingly. "Oh, well, that explains a lot!" she giggles.

Pulsing with the power of my spiritual conviction that these lovely people will welcome my additional contribution, I decide to offer another nugget of Ultimate Truth. "No, desire isn't wrong. Desire is a good thing. It only feels bad if we believe that what we desire is unattainable. Or wrong for us in some other way. It’s only when we start to judge our desires so harshly that we suffer."

The man and woman exchange a glance of solidarity, of patient mutual suffering at this unsolicited interruption to their potentially intriguing conversation with an attractive, age-appropriate stranger.  

That's a good point, dear," the woman says. "Hrmph!" the man says, and returns to his stack of magazines. His whole being exudes a new kind of desire: the desire that I shut up. Or better yet, go away, and leave him alone to impress this woman with his wisdom.

Ah well. They may not be ready for the Good News. Not on this particular day. But the good news for me is that I am totally and completely ready to spread my half-baked feel-good gospel to all who cross my path!

And the really good news?

This would be that my Essential Self packed up my Egoic Self and took it out of the way of two people who were doing just fine enjoying suffering and desire without my help.