Positivity is the underlying foundation of great human endeavors.
People do not do that which they believe to be impossible. Whether it is really impossible is often secondary to the opinion. We’ve changed the world often enough, and in enough ways, that we should know that plausible goals are almost always achievable.
Sometimes the costs of this are too great. I’m not a fan of utopian social engineering, for instance, because the eggs cracked to make that omelet are people.
But the fact remains that great things can be achieved.
How do I know this? We achieve them all the time without even thinking about them.
A Brief History Lesson
You might have heard that life in the past was short, wretched, and filled with death. That’s not always wrong, given the tendency of our species to heap misery upon the world.
But it’s wrong most of the time.
People have always found meaning, predominantly in God and each other, but also in their societies and personal ambitions.
One thing that people overlook is just how much people did.
The pyramids, for instance. People built those. With a bunch of giant rocks. Before modern machinery.
Now, a quick note: they probably had more machinery than we give them credit for, and I’ll get to our underestimation of our forebears soon.
But people built the pyramids, and for less ignoble reasons than often thought. They built them because they considered them sacred, because they connected the divine and the world.
Of course, they also had funerary purposes. Human ego was part of the equation, too.
But think about what it takes to build massive structures for the sake of little more than leaving behind a monument. They’re so old that it’s hard to conceive of their age, and they’d still be hard to replicate with modern technology.
Another thing that people don’t realize is how good people are at adapting to their surroundings. People talk of humans as complacent barring the occasional event that shakes them out of their window.
But the truth is that people have always worked toward a better life. One thing that people don’t realize is the history of mechanization, or at least the precursors of modern mechanization. Back in 11th century England, for instance, there were over six thousand water-mills.
This means that people were already using their ingenuity to save themselves from a life of hard labor.
This is only possible as a result of belief. People had to believe that they could improve and change the world in order to do so.
So, how positive should you be?
As positive as you need to be!
Harnessing the Positivity Machine
Once you know you can do things, you’re able to start with that premise in mind.
Of course, there are limitations to this. But the natural process of life is such that you adjust your expectations and cognitive frameworks to match the past.
For instance, I am probably never going to be an astronaut. I’m not too old, but I’m definitely too old to start at this point. And my level of interest is so low that they’d need to conscript me before I would give up my creature comforts to live in space.
However, I can be a writer. And I can write a little better today than I did yesterday. And I can write better tomorrow than I did today.
This process can repeat itself almost infinitely, which is nice because life is a repeating sequence of days, each of which presents opportunity and tragedy.
Positivity and Tragedy
Tragedy is the real place where positivity shines. This isn’t to say that you invite tragedy.
You don’t need to show how happy you are by ignoring problems.
Emotions are real. They’re meaningful, which often makes them feel more real than things that are tangibly present in our environment. And you don’t want to play games with them.
Tragedies are setbacks, but they’re also loss. Positivity doesn’t care about setbacks.
Again, if you know you can do it, having to take a few extra steps is just a delay, and maybe you learn something along the way.
But a tragedy takes something from the world.
The difference between a positive outlook to tragedy and other outlooks is this:
A positive outlook remembers what we lose for the value it held. We remember why we loved companions who are no longer with us. We remember how places and belongings that encapsulated our spirits edified us. We remember relationships that have broken apart for the bonds they built.
And we move on, seeking the next thing without forgetting the past.
Positivity has its limits.
Two requirements undergird the power of positivity, and only when they are met can positivity result in great things.
The first is simple and less important. Problems still have to be dealt with.
The second is complex, and is the fundamental question that we must ask of our life.
Dealing With Problems
Problems do not in and of themselves make an argument against positivity.
Approaching problems with a positive mindset means believing that they can be solved–or at least rendered irrelevant. People who suffer traumatic accidents that leave them without limbs or senses can still achieve great things in life and return to a salutary normal, even if they never fully recover physically.
Or they can give up, and things become much worse for them.
The thing about solving a problem or working around it is that it depends on at least some positivity. You don’t succeed if you don’t think you can.
Of course, there are people who deny their problems. They operate around them and leave the fundamental root causes of many of their sufferings unanswered.
Sometimes this can emulate positivity. The high-functioning addict may be capable of achieving great things by compartmentalizing their life. In one mode, they are the embodiment of the ideal. In the other mode, they torment themselves with shame and regret and may destroy their very lives.
The consequence of this is that the unaddressed problem is a source of limitation. They never achieve their potential, even if they outshine their lessers.
I hesitated to name anyone as an example here, but Stephen King is open enough about his past problems with substance abuse that I feel like he makes a useful example. Nobody would accuse him of lacking success, but he still has to grapple with books unwritten and memories erased by a history with drugs and alcohol.
The solution? Figure out what’s in your way and deal with it. Don’t invite problems in, and don’t let them go on longer than they have to. Limit their influence. Work to solve them, with a positive mindset.
Dealing with Morals
The greatest danger of positivity is this:
“I can do it, so I should do it.”
There are things that people can conceive of that have costs, and these costs are often unbearable.
We are great at ignoring costs. When we do this rationally and deliberately, we call it sacrifice. I sacrifice sugary foods in order to feel better. I sacrifice some leisure time in order to write. You sacrifice things every day by deciding that you value one thing over another.
And sacrifices become less costly over time as you establish what it is you’re working toward. A positive attitude helps with sacrifices, because you’re willing to write off what you could have had for what you rightly understand will be better.
But we can ignore costs in lowly and terrible ways.
You can ignore the problems that come with costs, for a start. But we’ve already discussed that.
The solution to that is to acknowledge the problems and forthrightly fix them.
The worst form of ignoring the cost is by engaging in immoral action.
This often means that we take what we know we should do and abandon it. Sometimes it lets us shift the costs away from ourselves and onto someone else, usually a hapless third-party.
The problems with this are two-fold.
First, you make the world measurably worse. Moral laws are sometimes regarded as superstitious, especially when they don’t follow what seem like logical conventions.
But they have a key underlying purpose, which is that when people act in accordance with morality they keep themselves from committing excessive errors.
Sometimes your failures come back to bite you and you alone. That’s something you’d want to avoid if you had foresight. And usually people fix moral errors that directly hurt them.
But it’s easy to ignore the impact you have on other people. It can be invisible–or others might try to hide it from you–and often occurs distantly enough from your person that you don’t see the effects in your life.
For instance, it’s possible to buy goods made with slave labor in basically any major retail store in the United States. Heck, depending on the purchasing decisions you made, you might be reading this on a display that was made by a slave.
Few people deliberately set out to create slavery in the world. We rightfully view it as an abhorrent practice at odds with self-ownership and human dignity.
But yet our actions do not live up to the standards they should to create a better world.
The second issue here is that immoral actions often fail because they’re not grounded in reality.
This doesn’t mean that all moral actions are grounded in reality. But we shape our moral judgments based on what works for society, and what works in our lives.
We are very unlikely to advocate for morality that hurts us. We could say that it is wicked to eat, for instance. But then we would have a world where only hypocrites and the immoral survive.
Further, right action seems to guide itself toward the idea of making decisions that are sustainable and iterate across time. I don’t steal from someone I need to work with in the future, and since I might need to work with almost anyone in unforeseen circumstances, it is better that I do not steal at all.
The principles behind these morals are even more elegant and provide more protective value than the individual courses of actions they prescribe.
Positivity solves many problems because it involves the acceptance of human potential.
We use this potential to bring about things which better ourselves and our world, precisely because we strive toward that which we feel is good.
But we should also be careful to avoid using positivity as an escape from our problems or to put it above our moral responsibilities.