Can you be too positive?

No one has ever accused me of being too positive.

But I’m hoping that will change as I make more progress in my journey from cynicism to optimism happiness.

Last night I swept away some old beliefs that had sat like a deep chasm across my inner landscape.

My prior attempts at being more positive were hitherto hemmed in by that old negativity — I was convinced of a threatening malice in my world, and of my own powerlessness to defend against it.

Now that it is gone – now that I’ve ceased to keep it alive – the relationship between my thoughts and my feelings and subsequent experience of life is clearer than ever before.

It is obvious now that I should focus on finding thoughts that feel good, rather than struggling to control or manipulate external circumstances – since the existence (and my interpretation) of those circumstances hinges on the quality and direction of my thoughts.

So how do we change our thoughts?

The mechanism is obscure, but we do it all the time. We constantly reach for, and accept, thoughts about everything, but we rarely exercise our ability to hold back and be selective about the thoughts we accept.

Reflexivity: thinking about thinking

Today the weather is hot, and the first thought that comes to mind is that the heat is unpleasant.

But I don’t have to stay with the first thought that comes to mind. I can choose one that feels better: it’ll be over soon. The sun is so beautiful. It’s great beach weather. I love how variable the weather is here. I’m so glad we don’t have terrible heat-waves anymore. I love how bright it is outside!

You can tell for yourself which thoughts feel better, and how much better they feel.

If you choose a thought that feels better instead of one that feels worse, you have successfully changed your thoughts and hence your feelings, and hence your reality.

So far so simple.

But what might happen in the midst of choosing a new thought is that you find yourself thinking about this process itself.

You might think: this is stupid, you can’t change anything just by thinking about it.

Or: this is hard work, I don’t want to have to do this all the time.

What’s happened is that choosing a more positive thought has brought out of hiding higher-order thoughts or beliefs.

And it turns out that these higher-order thoughts or beliefs also determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

So try as you might to feel better about the weather by changing your thoughts, if you have higher-order thoughts that say positive-thinking is a load of wishful thinking and self-delusion, you will continue to feel bad and nothing much will change.

The good news is that you can change your thoughts about positive-thinking itself just as easily as you can change your thoughts about the weather.

So can you be too positive?

Hence the title of this post: the idea that you can be too positive, or that being positive is a superficial attempt to delude oneself, these are themselves beliefs or thoughts that determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

There is no such thing as “too positive”, because the thought of being “too positive” is not a positive thought.

If you think there is such a thing as “too positive”, you are, by definition, being too negative.


Good Friday notes 2016

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Reaching the end of your tether can be a positive experience. It’s a little cliche to say “the darkest night is before the dawn”, but I’m okay with letting the cliche stand when it’s this important.

Today is Good Friday in the Western Christian calendar, and though it isn’t the darkest night – the dawn being still two days away – it is nonetheless a grim entry into the event that epitomises the principle of reversion.

Reaching the end of your tether can mirror this principle of reversion to greater or lesser degrees once we realise that our old ways, our old efforts, our old self is just not going to cut it; when we recognise without caveats or excuses that something more is required.

For me this has translated into a sincere conviction that without some kind of spiritual/mental discipline I am in danger of being entirely depleted by the demands of daily life.

When it comes to such disciplines, I’ve done a lot of window-shopping and a lot of test-driving. I’ve seen and read enough to make me cynical of some people’s aims, methods and intentions as well as pessimistic about the benefits that accrue.

But a sincere effort requires a careful retreat from cynicism and pessimism. It’s true that there’s a lot of rubbish being sold, and a lot of things presented as one-size-fits-all solutions. That hasn’t worked for me in any other area of life, so why would it work in this one?

Struggling to learn a martial art has taught me that I can’t afford to take anything for granted. Nor is it simply a matter of asking lots of questions. We have to bear in mind personal idiosyncrasies, temperament, life experience, and individual circumstances, and the more you diverge from the mean, the more the onus is on you to recognise and understand where and how you diverge.

We are all individuals, but some of us are more individual than others.

For this reason I wouldn’t try to sway other people any more than I would let myself be unduly swayed. I have to practice a kind of philosophical autarky.

This also means I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others, and on the personal level of overcoming compulsions and dealing with harmful emotions it is far more important to adhere to a discipline that works than to seek theoretical certitude of its metaphysics and merits. Just as you can accept life-saving help from a stranger without first establishing an internally coherent and externally robust theory of charity, reciprocity, and justice.

I once read a description of a philosopher as someone who worries that what works in practice might not work in theory. It’s especially apt in my context, though a little more defensible than it sounds. Nonetheless, the prevailing theme of 2016 for me appears to be one of putting aside theoretical doubts about things I have known for many years to be useful, valuable, and true.

Are you really a cynic?

I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of


As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.

This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.

What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.

A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.

Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.

Are you truly cynical, or sardonic?  The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.

A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.

Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”

But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.

Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise.  Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind.  Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it.  It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.

That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism.  Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.

I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.




How Google Works

A friend sent me this slideshare presentation about the creative management philosophy behind Google.

If you’ve experienced a corporate environment, you’ll appreciate what they’re getting at.  If you haven’t, you might just want to skim through anyway:


I had two thoughts while reading this.

On the one hand, I wanted to send it to the CEO of an organisation I used to work for; an individual who strongly believes in innovation, but whose attempts to nurture it within the company met with what we might describe as institutionalised inertia combined with professional selfishness.

On the other hand, I have a terrible feeling that this feel-good Google story is exactly the kind of thing that would end up being played at a major staff meeting, with key individuals adopting the language and buzzwords but not actually changing their behaviour or the way the organisation functions.

Let’s face it, if the presentation didn’t have ‘Google’ stamped all over it like a corporate imprimatur, it’d be some weird and hopeful yet ultimately fruitless pep talk that we idealists would cling to while management moved invincibly onward, muttering ‘runs on the board’, ‘lets kick some goals’ and ‘bang for our buck’.

After all, the harsh reality is that if the ‘smart creatives’ were really so smart, they wouldn’t end up in the position of total professional dependence on managers whose own creativity and smarts are entirely devoted to self-interested career advancement.

If this sounds overly cynical, don’t worry. It’s just the voice of experience.  Cynicism should have been my KPI, given how steadily it increased over the course of my experiment in corporate employ.

The good news is that individuals may now be well placed to exercise the birthright of the ‘smart creative’, unencumbered and therefore unexploited by the increasingly impersonal machinations of big business.  To be free of dysfunctional corporate systems is one example of how, on a lower income, our lives can nonetheless be much richer.