Positively Challenged


I used to think that being positive was being willfully oblivious to the negative aspects of life, turning a blind eye to the horrific examples of loss, failure, rejection and maltreatment in the world. Those motivational posters you see in classrooms and office environments practically made me hurl.

Though I’m still a natural pessimist, with a tendency toward straight up cynicism, I now see a positive outlook as the ultimate acknowledgment of life’s greatest disappointments, but with a different spin. Rather than seeing only the problems (a negative viewpoint), a positive outlook insists on seeing solutions, possibilities, hope, valuable lessons, growth opportunities or—at the very least—a chance to build up your ‘adversity resume.’ Plus, whether you gain something from these experiences or not, you become connected to a new world of individuals with similar circumstances. Think about it: Every event in your life gives you a potential commonality with a complete stranger, somewhere. And that link may help you forge a connection which could alter their view or lighten their load.

Maybe that’s too far-reaching. Maybe it’s too basic. Maybe it’s a bit dramatic and unrealistically altruistic, but it’s true to some degree.

However, positivity is a concept many have oversimplified—even leaders in the field of psychology. Looking at the real science behind positive thinking, the data is not all that mixed so much as it is complex. Fredrickson and Losada, in a 2005 study (Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing), published in American Psychologist, found a correlation between someone’s ability to flourish and having a positive affect, according to a survey wherein participants recorded their positive and negative emotions for nearly a month. Because of this dynamic study and mathematical analysis, many rushed to call positivity a basic ingredient for success, and yet the study drew critics. For one thing, it was not an impressive longitudinal study. For another, it was based upon a “nonlinear” and “dynamic” model, in which all sorts of factors could account for a person’s flourishing or not flourishing. Not to mention the obvious: If someone is fairly successful to begin with, they might be more apt to be an optimist, correct? Hence, the potential for multiple lurking variables.

Despite the possible gaps in that study (and in my own dumbed down explanation of its findings), the Mayo clinic and most health professionals will vouch for optimism rather than pessimism any day of the week when it comes to extending one’s number of weeks alive and improving their quality.


Optimists tend to cope better with negative experiences, accept and adapt to adverse situations, engage in more thorough preventative care, and (obviously) suffer fewer bouts of depression. In “How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility,” by Hans Villarica, the author recounts the early findings of psychologists Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver, as they paved the way for groundbreaking research on the effects of truly ‘eliminating the negative/accentuating the positive.’

Scheier and Carver published their first major study in this area, “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies” in the 1980s via Health Psychology. Like most findings to come, they found that optimism increased a person’s ability to self-regulate, to see alternative options, to problem solve, and to be attentive to themselves and others.

These abilities, in turn, can be linked to many health benefits, including lowered risks for stress-related conditions (hyptertension, stroke and diabetes) and higher rates of wellness, including better sleep and fewer illnesses, according to Barbara Fredrickson,  author of the book “Positivity.” In it, she even lists higher pain tolerance as a bonus of positive thinking. I suppose it’s time to skip the Tylenol and start a “Gratitude Journal?”

Not so fast.

While health professionals definitely rally behind positivity as opposed to, say, complaining and worrying about everything, it’s not a magic pill or something that can be measured in a conventional sense. Even Fredrickson, a sure proponent for a positive mindset, begins her book with a vague rather than scientifically specific list of effects. How does positivity change you? Well, she asserts that it works in these ways:

  1. It “feels good.” This is the “No shit, Sherlock” analysis. But morphine feels good too, as does denial, young love and a night out on the town. This reason alone would not be sustainable, so let’s move on.
  2. “Positivity changes how your mind works,” she writes. It gives you the ability to see beyond what is, and explore new possibilities.
  3. It “transforms your future.” In further explanation, Fredrickson gives this example: “Although good feelings will forever be fleeting, over time, positivity literally brings out the best in you” as you make the most of resources and build upon any given starting point.
  4. It flushes out negativity, leaving you “in a better position to move on and make the best of the new circumstances you (face),” writes Fredrickson. “It turns out that positivity is the secret to becoming resilient.”
  5. “Positivity obeys a tipping point….Its effects are nonlinear.” By that, along with her elaboration, one can ascertain that the positive thinking is far-reaching, whereas negative thinking presents one path, where a diversion from said path results in an arduous (and unnecessary) either-or scenario.

Okay, I get this. I have always known some of this, either intuitively or through my limited supply of common sense and anecdotal observations, but positive thinking is almost like going on a ‘diet of the mind’ for some individuals—and I’m one of them.

Just as some people are born with a natural bent toward athletics, enjoy physical activity and have a fast metabolism, some people are born with an agreeable, outgoing and positive nature. According to Hans Villarica,  twin studies show optimism as an inheritable disposition, despite a gap in our ability to pinpoint the exact genetics responsible. He also points out that poverty and stressful childhood conditions often yield pessimistic adults.

Here, the science at least reads as more concrete. Those who grow up with rough beginnings, often institutionalized and usually under extreme chronic stress, experience a series of psychological, biopsychological and neurological developments that make processing the world with a positive lens not only impractical but chemically unlikely.

When early beginnings make it difficult to function, much less develop a positive way of processing, the brain reacts in a myriad of ways. It can change actual form and function, such as shortened or frayed telomeres (genetic markers that cap the ends of chromosomes like the aglet on the end of your shoelaces, promoting strength and stability while ideally preventing premature cellular aging). It can release increasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones). These stress hormones can eventually produce a larger and overactive amygdala (which controls many basic emotional states, such as fear and agression cycles a la “fight, flight or freeze” responses), which is still being researched in foster care populations and returning veterans.

Overall, that excess of stress hormones and underproduction of soothing chemicals (such as serotonin) can  inflict damage upon the hippocampus as well, wreaking havoc on your sympathetic nervous system’s “natural” responses. This affects everything from memory and concentration to emotional regulation and coping mechanisms. Also, it weakens neural plasticity—or, in simple terms, your brains ability to adapt. (Sources include: Audrey Tyrka, et al, 2010; Purvis and Cross, 2006; Karl Ebner, et al, 2003; Donald G. Rainnie, et al, 2004; Compass, B.E., 2006; and McEwen, Bruce, et al, 1992.)

In short, the abilities you need to develop the skills you crave in order to live the life you would like may be the most difficult to acquire if you’re in the greatest need. Like the poor bastard who wins the lottery yet doesn’t know the value of money, or the girl with low self-esteem who suddenly blossoms into a goddess post-puberty, someone who grows up on the fringe of chaos and destruction may not have the necessary skills to recognize and cultivate positive thinking patterns without some serious work. Just as the bank won’t give you a loan unless you can prove you don’t desperately need the money, a brain will not forfeit its former habits to a newer and more challenging framework.

Being a natural pessimist shouldn’t be regarded as a character flaw anymore than being overweight should be a sign that someone is lazy or unmotivated. However, it can be a sign that you are cheating yourself (and others) out of a more enjoyable, fulfilling and interesting existence.  Personally, I find positivity to be a stretch—and a significantly challenging one—but I figure, “What the hell, I like challenges.”

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