If a person is too weak to lift a certain desired amount of weight, no friend or coach would implore them to “Possess more muscle mass!” Instead the advice would be to “Spend more time at the gym!” Do the exercises that would build strength over time.

And yet, when a person struggles to see a situation constructively, when a person fails to overcome a gloomy outlook and imagine a promising path forward, their friends and acquaintances will often tell them to “Think more positively!” As if that could be achieved with the snap of a finger. As if it could be done without time and practice, without “going to the gym.”

Building muscle is something we know we have to work at, but thinking positively is something we expect ourselves – and others – to be able to accomplish just by making one simple decision.

Experience shows it’s not so easy. If you’ve ever been depressed and a friend told you to look on the bright side, you might have responded with anger or annoyance. That’s because you’d already tried to look on the bright side and if it had worked, you wouldn’t still be depressed. Now, the friend is placing the guilt on you for not achieving sudden success in the endeavor of positivity.

We don’t simply “possess” an outlook on life; rather, we create and recreate our outlook through the thousands of thoughts that flow through our minds each day, and the thousands of decisions we make about which thoughts to emphasize and which to ignore. To change our outlook, it’s not sufficient to change one thought, we need to practice navigating the continuous flow of thought in a different way, and we need to apply that new approach over an extended time.

An outlook is actually not like a painting, hanging on a wall, where with a few strokes of a brush, we can alter what it depicts forever after. It’s more like improvised music – where each note fades away soon after it comes into being – and the whole thing simply disappears if we stop playing. To make it sound different, we need to play in a different way, and to keep playing in that new way over time.

A while ago, I heard someone lament that they’d been “ghosted” by more than one attractive date they’d met online. After promising beginnings, these dates had suddenly stopped communicating. So this person had invented a little story to explain their romantic misfortune. Every date who had ghosted them must have been a professional assassin, who had been hired to kill them, but who had fallen in love with them and just couldn’t finish the job.

Great story, right? It’s an example of the way we can use our imagination to change how a situation feels. Being ghosted, no more an insult, becomes the highest possible compliment in this view. Of course it’s a humorous fantasy, but it’s not so far from a possible truth – some of these disappearing prospects might have sensed a romance blossoming and might have run away because they weren’t ready for it.

Is it right to see this story as a product of work? Well, it’s creative, it’s funny, and it didn’t come from nowhere: the person who thought of it might have taken some time to put it together. So yes, it can be seen as a work product that required an investment of time and creativity and returned a value: a laugh, a better mood. This story alone is not guaranteed to cure loneliness or frustration but it might help a tiny bit, and these tiny bits add up.

Creating stories like this – little fictions that help us get through life – is a skill that can be practiced. What’s another story for the ghosting situation? Maybe all of those vanishing dates were “put there” to help our hero develop the strength and resilience he or she will need to go out and find true love? This is a common narrative where we see a hardship as an opportunity that’s been created for us so we can learn something we need to learn. It’s a way of finding meaning in randomness and pain. The phrase “finding meaning” deserves emphasis here. The idea of “thinking positively” can sound superficial or forced, but any time we say “thinking positively” we might as well say “searching for meaning.”

Just like a health-conscious person might wake up every morning and do a 30-minute physical workout to build strength and stamina, a perspective-conscious person could wake up every morning and do a 30-minute viewpoint workout, practicing optimism, or positive thinking, or finding meaning. This could involve meditation. It could also involve storytelling – devising narratives that cast a positive light on uncomfortable situations, stories that help reveal lessons in adversities. A version of this has been called gratitude journaling. Another version is known as prayer. If we really practiced at our outlook like this every day, with the same dedication some people have for working out at the gym, how much better might we feel? And if we aren’t putting in this daily practice, why should we expect our outlook to improve?

I used to think that I’d rather know the truth than feel good. But I came to believe that we can’t know the truth directly, we can only gaze at it from one perspective or another. And the perspective we adopt affects the decisions we make, which shape the reality we come to inhabit. So we might as well adopt – through practice – the perspective that shapes our future for the better. ■

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