September 13 Is Positive Thinking Day

You may throw up in your mouth a little, because I will perhaps be too uncool for the crowd now by writing about… positive thinking. Or rather, my personal take on positive thinking. The older I get, the more I look back at my constantly worried younger self as a complete stranger; was that really me? A few years ago, I noticed that my overall attitude seemed to have drifted into a different kind of mind-set when one of my managers asked: “How do you always stay so positive? It seems you always try to see any problem as… well, not really a problem.” I had never seen myself as a positive person, but soon realized that over time I had learned that life is just too short to always default towards negative thoughts. So in this spirit, I decided to take a dive into our library catalog to find a variety of materials that support positive thinking.

There are of course tons of so-called self-help books in the catalog, and I have certainly been one to browse through all kinds over the years. My mind was not refurbished in one day, but I searched for guidance and advice from many writers, such as Iyanla Vanzant (self-empowerment), Eckhart Tolle (spiritual), Dale Carnegie (careers and people skills), Don Miguel Ruiz (mystic wisdom), Julia Cameron (creativity) as well as occasionally the mother of all positive vibes: Oprah Winfrey. (See below suggestions for titles by these writers and links to all titles mentioned in this article.)

If you’ve gone down the same path and decided you already found your nirvana, why not just have a laugh? To become completely happy, you just need to do the exact opposite of the advice given in How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. This book is a parody on the genre, so you can “develop important dysfunctional skills to help you cultivate discontent.” The chapter headings alone made me laugh out loud, such as “Rehearse the Regrettable Past,” “Insist on Perfection,” or “Construct Future Hells.”

One of the weirdest (and most exhausting) examples of positive thinking might be the Depression-era endeavors of Plennie Wingo. After seeing the foreclosure of his restaurant in Abilene, Texas, unsuccessfully trying to sell liquor during Prohibition, and struggling to feed his family by digging ditches, he came up with the idea of walking around the world—backwards. Nowadays we say that traveling expands your mind, but this early entrepreneurial marketing genius made some coin from a clearly obsessive idea about traveling: “when a certain kind of man has a certain kind of idea, one that he considers good, that good idea takes hold of him and it swells behind his eyeballs and expands, balloon-like, so big that it crowds out all the other thoughts and ideas” (from The Man Who Walked Backward).

Wingo’s backward-strolling resulted in news stories, large crowds, and plenty of sales made from postcards and mementos. His trek drummed up enough fundraising along the way to last for 8,000 miles during 18 months, through the American South, then Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and even 1931 Berlin, at the time obsessed with new politician Adolf Hitler.

Someone who lived through the subsequent WWII horrors in Europe was the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His book Man’s Search for Meaning has been named one of the ten most influential books in the US. Some of his thoughts have inspired my own thinking about life, especially learning how to reframe your own thoughts about what is happening ‘to’ you: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

Frankl’s school of thought and his practice focused on how finding meaning in the events in your life is the only way to reach fulfillment. He identified three main ways of realizing meaning in life: by making a difference in the world, by having particular experiences, or by adopting specific attitudes. According to Frankl, the best ways to preserve (or find) your mental health are, in simple terms: self-distancing, humor, not focusing on negative symptoms, and putting in the work to modify your attitude.

I don’t recommend completely suppressing all negative thoughts and feelings; they are of course relevant and may be trying to tell you something. I have just tried to find ways to avoid dwelling on them. It seems that most of us have this inner monologue/voice that randomly repeats and reinforces certain thought patterns. Through my yoga practice I have learned some meditation techniques in which you use your breathing, body awareness, or sounds to quiet down the chattering “monkey mind.” Sitting down to meditate is really hard for most of us, but it can help to cleanse your mind from too many negative thoughts by simply observing and recognizing what is swirling around inside the skull bone.

For the beginner, this is a practical introduction to meditation and mindfulness techniques: Instant Calm: 2-minute Meditations to Create a Lifetime of Happy by Karen Salmansohn. Meditation can tie in to activities we already do daily, such as taking a shower, tasting food and drink, petting a pet, or observing the beauty of nature. These are a couple of other titles that describe different techniques if you would like to “ease into” meditation: One-Minute Mindfulness and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

One of my greatest interests and joys in life is music—an artform that I think communicates directly with our emotional states. We all have our favorite genres, artists, and songs that make us happy, sometimes sad, energized, or relaxed. I will leave everyone’s musical preferences alone, and just mention one example, specifically made for relaxation and meditation: Tibetan Meditation Music by Nawang Khechog. It has all the acoustic “bells and whistles” associated with meditation: chants, flutes, strings, and nature sounds.

Lastly, for a positive visual experience, maybe you don’t have to go forest bathing, but just (re)watch Forrest Gump for a little inoculation against any self-deprecating or negative thoughts. And by the way, did you know that September 13 is also International Chocolate Day? Coincidence? I think not, because only with a curious, positive mind can we boldly approach this box of chocolates called life.


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