Earlier in my life, in those occasional moments when I’ve felt really dejected for one reason or another, and a friend, listening to the litany of my troubles, has suggested I simply need to have a better attitude, that I should look on the bright side, I’ve usually muttered something to the effect of “You don’t understand.” When I need commiseration or catharsis, it may feel like an insult to be told that I should be more optimistic. Such advice overlooks the details of what’s troubling me and implies that I bear the responsibility for my condition: my real problem isn’t out there in the world, but rather in my mind. If I would just think differently, I would feel differently, and if I refuse to do that, then my suffering is in some sense my own fault.
It’s easy to chafe at such advice, and to reject it, particularly when you feel that the person giving the advice doesn’t really “get” what you’re going through: the confluence of factors outside your control, the unreasonableness of other people, the inescapable thorniness of happenstance.
But whenever I’ve bristled at the idea of looking on the bright side, there’s been a tinge of epistemic hubris in my position: I’m absolutely convinced I’m seeing the truth. The truth is ugly and that’s why I’m sad. To be cheerful at such a bad time would require willful ignorance. Being sad, in this view, is almost virtuous in that it involves a refusal to look away from reality, however grim, and an unwillingness to be duped by happy fantasies. Being sad is being honest.
My stance regarding “positive thinking” has changed in recent years. I’m more open to it, less likely to resist it as I’ve just described. That’s not to say I’m able to transform my perspective from gloomy to hopeful at will, but that I respect those who can pull off such a feat and I believe there’s something for me to learn here.
Here’s an argument I accept: if you walk into a room, you may think you’re seeing the full truth of the room, but of course you’re only seeing the few parts of the room you’re looking at. You could take a photograph that shows light coming in through the windows, and someone viewing this image would sense an airy, welcoming place. Or you could take a photograph that shows dust and cobwebs in an abandoned corner, and someone viewing this image would think the place is cramped and dirty. Is one photograph more honest than the other? No, they are both honest but partial depictions of a complex reality. It’s like this with any situation: where you point the lens makes all the difference. When we feel dejected it’s often because we are pointing the lens at those things that are most troubling to us, ignoring or discounting the possibility that we could point the lens in other directions too.
Photography requires skill that can be developed through practice, and likewise we can practice and improve at finding perspectives that emphasize the hope and promise in difficult situations as opposed to emphasizing only the pain. We can be kinder “photographers” of our circumstances. We can be more receptive to what might be beautiful or inspiring, and less obsessed with showcasing what’s ugly or upsetting. We can do this not by denying reality and embracing fantasy, but simply by changing what aspects of reality we concentrate on.
From those last paragraphs, you might conclude that I have consumed the Kool-Aid of positive thinking, and maybe I have. What made me do it?
I’ll mention one of the moments that brought about a shift in my attitude. It was when a critical care nurse who had just taken my blood pressure, reviewed my medical chart, and interviewed me about my various concerns told me that I needed to be more optimistic to be more healthy. I was not in an ICU; rather, I had signed up for a course in stress management and mindfulness at my local hospital, and I was having an intake session with this nurse, who would be teaching the class. So perhaps it was predictable that she would have said something about positivity. Nevertheless, it was shocking, in a helpful way, for me to receive optimism as a prescription, written by someone I viewed as a medical authority, the same kind of person who would tell you to take an antibiotic twice a day for the next two weeks, and you’d do it without question because you trust her to know what’s best for your physical health.
The nurse gave me an explanation of how thoughts can trigger a stress response or a relaxation response, and how those bodily responses in turn affect our fitness, immunity, and overall well-being. I’d heard such stuff before, but I was ready to be reminded. When a friend blithely tells you to be more positive you can be miffed that they’re not really commiserating with your pain, but when a healthcare practitioner tells you the same, quoting research and invoking the weight of a lifelong medical career, the advice carries a different weight. Where I had always viewed the tension between optimism and pessimism as private matter, a question of personal philosophy, something an individual could reasonably ponder throughout their life, this was the first time anyone suggested to me that one of those stances was an essential component of health, and the other was not.
Another thing that’s affected my outlook is that I’ve gathered enough years to look back on now, more than forty of them, and I can see that my bad moods never got me anywhere, even though in each case it seemed like being sullen was an act of protest, a way of sending a message to reality that I did not approve of its course. The message was never received, not once. I can only conclude that sullenness is not a great way to effect change.
During the nurse’s class, I wrote down my own summaries of points that were made. I’m reviewing them now as I look for wisdom to apply in the time of COVID. On one piece of notepaper, I wrote this:
Contentment comes from believing there is meaning in life and always working to find that meaning. The ability to find meaning is something that can be practiced: you get better at it the more you try. When you’re down, it’s because you’re overemphasizing negatives and ignoring positives – you’re turning away from sources of meaning – it’s that simple.
Is it really that simple? I’m not sure, but I do recognize that the times when my life has seemed the most suffused with meaning are the times when I’ve felt the happiest. I’m intrigued by the idea that a sense of purpose is not a static quality that a person might have or lack but that it is something we can cultivate as an ongoing practice.
I’m tempted to think that “looking on the bright side” is advice that applies to normal times, when you’re basically OK; in times of extreme stress, it might not be practical or reasonable to be optimistic. But I remember that the nurse who taught the class also works with cancer patients, some of whom are at late stages of disease: with only a few months to live, she would say, it’s still not too late to embrace a more optimistic outlook, and doing so could help you make the most of what time you’ve got left. Even if your day was spent struggling with the side effects of chemo, there might have been a moment when you laughed at something or appreciated a kind gesture from a friend. Focus on that moment, and savor it. Give the good things more airtime than the bad things. Doing that can only help you.
As COVID rages, there is a lot to practice. We are cut off from so many of our most natural and familiar sources of meaning. Where we find meaning in physical togetherness, gathering with friends, camaraderie, public celebration, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in travel, adventure, novelty, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in live performances, plays, concerts, sporting events, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in shared meals, we must now eat alone. We can move some of these activities online, but it’s not quite the same. As we lose the social rituals that keep us feeling connected, we may also be losing whatever economic security we have worked to achieve, fearing for our own health and those of our loved ones, and hearing daily reports of illness, death, and systemic dysfunction.
The idea is not to ignore this or pretend it isn’t happening. The idea is not to artificially think cheery thoughts. Rather, it’s to experiment with “photographing” this situation in different ways, holding the camera at angles we might not often think to use. What beauty is still transpiring in the world even as the pandemic expands? What lessons can we learn from the experience before us? What opportunities for growth and change does it present? What meaning can we find in it? Take the time to list possible answers to these questions. Even if you’re not persuaded by those answers, see how many you can come up with.
And now I come to the challenge of practicing what I preach. I will try to list a few things that have been making me feel good or giving me hope in the past few days, and I’ll try to crank the list out in ten minutes, so it’s going to be unpolished:
I’ve had some really good phone conversations with friends and family, especially my mom, over the past two weeks.
I’m glad I developed an exercise routine before the pandemic because it’s serving me well now.
I’m getting reacquainted with my music collection, listening to some albums that I haven’t heard in years.
I’m cooking every meal at home. This is the first time in my life when I’ve sustained a practice of 100% home cooking. Now that some ingredients are hard to get, I’m appreciating each meal more than I otherwise might.
I’ve still got a job. A home. A partner. A life.
I’ve watched some good movies this past week. For whatever reason, I never developed a movie streaming habit; maybe now’s the time to partake (even though, alas, streaming has a hidden environmental cost).
I’m sleeping well again.
My musical collaborator just sent me some fantastic clavichord recordings of some of my new canons. I’m eager to keep working with him and write more canons. Also, to record some of my songs. And start some new musical experiments.
Listening to those few leaders who project competence, composure, and respect for science.
I remember that by staying home, the average person is not only protecting their own health, but the health of all of us. Our isolation is a social gesture, an act of solidarity. We’re saying inside for each other.
My ten minutes is up.