“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.’
— Frank Outlaw
What we think, we become.
Reality is not neutral. We are always passing judgment on what happens around us. You and I can face the same event, yet will react differently — our thoughts shape our reality, not the other way around.
That’s why most people suggest we think positively — it has become an oversimplified approach to make us feel better.
“Be positive” can be terrible advice.
Telling someone who’s sad or depressed that positive thoughts will change their mental state, can be detrimental. Similarly, being overly optimistic can blind our reality.
Positive thinking is not what you think. We must embrace our whole self, not just the bright side.
The color of your soul
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius
Our society loves black or white assessments — you are either an optimist or a pessimist.
Labels are a heavy burden — we get stuck in one place, rather than exploring our possibilities. Our self is fluid. We all have positive or negative thoughts or positive and negative moments.
Pretending to be always happy is harmful. We focus on one aspect and fail to see our blind spots. Labeling oneself as a negative person doesn’t help either — we overplay our dramas and become victims of self-pity.
Research shows that optimists perceive less stress because either they are better able to cope with adversity or because of their positive view. However, when facing severe challenges, optimists suffer a lower immune response than pessimists.
Curiously, a strong belief in hope can make optimists think they can achieve anything they want to, just by trying hard. This perfectionist view can lead to unrealistic expectations — positive thinking can’t make everything come true.
We are not our thoughts, because they are always changing. Understanding our fluid nature is critical to continue growing — we are work in progress, not a finished product.
Bad thoughts are harmful — they create more suffering. However, avoiding our negative emotions won’t make them go away.
The problem with optimism
There’s nothing wrong with negative emotions. We all have them. They are a fundamental part of who we are — emotions express our basic intelligence and energy.
Positivity is a fluid state, not a status. You are not either positive or negative. Overplaying one aspect is deceiving — you must embrace your entire self.
“In America, optimism has become almost like a cult,” the social psychologist Aaron Sackett told Psychology Today. Or, as another American psychologist added, “In this country, pessimism comes with a deep stigma.”
Optimism has become a pervasive dogma. Pessimism gets a bad rap, but positive thinking can be brutally enforced.
“It’s gotten to the point where people really feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way,” observes B. Cade Massey, a professor of organizational behavior.
Massey’s research shows that, when asked to forecast the outcomes of events such as a financial investment or a surgical procedure, people make overly optimistic predictions. And wish to be even more optimistic. Many of us have drunk the ‘positivity Kool-Aid’ — We believe optimism is the solution for all our problems.
I’m not advocating in favor or against optimism, but to break free from labeling ourselves. A positive approach to life requires embracing both sides rather than living in an exaggerated — positive or negative — fantasy.
Happiness is a state of mind, not something we acquire. We spend more time contemplating what’s missing in our lives rather than what we have. That’s why we suffer.
You are what you think you are
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” ― Buddha
Connecting to your emotions allows you to respond without reacting — you don’t let judgments or preconceptions shape your behavior. Instead, you decide to explore and understand your emotions — you feed compassion and wisdom, not anger.
Your thoughts define your reality.
The problem with idealizing positive thinking is trying to hide the negativity within us. Bringing a positive spin to what happens is not enough. You must confront and accept all your emotions. And understand how they shape your version of reality.
There’s a difference between our imagined experience ‘in here’ and what’s going on ‘out there.’
As Domyo Burk said, “For me, there is no reality ‘out there,’ separate from my mind; I will never be able to perceive a thing without the involvement of my mind. And what is the use of any reality ‘out there’ that can’t ever be perceived? In a sense, reality is born as we perceive it.”
That doesn’t mean there’s no objective reality. But that our reality lies in the intersection between an object (an event) and a subject (we).
Buddhism has an interesting view of the relationship between positive mind states and reality. It acknowledges the effect of positive thinking on our subjective experience — It’s more pleasant to feel relaxed than upset. If we consciously transform the way we relate to an experience, we can change its nature.
Positive thinking is not doing something to make you feel better, but to stop fighting reality — both positive and negative.
Change your reality with positive thinking
The way we experience something is determined by what we think about it. Positive thinking is helpful. But it only works if you accept your entire reality, not just the bright side. Self-acceptance is our foundation — we can build a stronger life.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus realized this 2,000 years ago when he said, “People are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles.”
Say a car cuts you off when you are driving on a highway. The driver was probably in a hurry and didn’t notice you. It could have caused an accident. How would you react?
It’s normal to get upset or feel attacked — your own self-concern arises, and you want to fight back. Instead, you could try to take some emotional distance and avoid reacting. Imagine you are the driver who cut someone else off. Would you like the person to get mad at you or to be patient and forgiving?
By putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we avoid being taken by negativity. Empathy provides room for understanding reality rather than reacting to it.
Life is full of possibilities — you can’t control what happens to you, but you can manage how you react.
Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, discovered that how we react to an event is determined mainly by our view of the incident, not what happened. He believed that people don’t just get upset but contribute to their upset-ness.
Ellis said, “Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.”
Blaming never helps; it just feeds negativity. Epictetus believed that those who are perfectly instructed would place blame neither on others nor on themselves. Being in charge of our life requires commanding our emotions.
Let your destiny define your thoughts
The mind is an interesting, powerful ally — mindfulness helps us become more familiar with ourselves.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, accepting our emotions is key to practice mindfulness correctly: “In mindfulness, one is not only restful and happy but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.”
The Vietnamese monk and peace activist believes that many of us have the wrong idea about what happiness is. We think that we need to be positive all the time, but happiness is about being present. We appreciate the here and now.
We all need stars to help us navigate our darkest nights. Your life’s purpose provides clarity, so you don’t crash when navigating troubled waters. It helps your mind steer in the right direction. And reach your destiny.
Your life purpose should define your thoughts, not the other way around.
No matter how negative your reality, your purpose gives you the strength to keep moving forward. It provides a positive outlook. Your purpose brings meaning to your life. When you control your destiny, you control your thoughts.
As Albert Ellis said, “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”
The most meaningful purpose of life is to be helpful, not happy.
People who are generous, who genuinely try to help others are more likely to succeed. Generosity doesn’t empty but fills your tank. As Buddha said, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
Having a positive approach to life doesn’t mean being overly optimistic. We must become the best version of ourselves, not a fantasy. Our purpose is “to do the best we can, given a set of circumstances and our current dispositions,” as Isabelle Payette wrote here.
Our life will always have both positive and negative experiences. We can choose to add more negativity. And create more suffering. Or we can accept life as is. It’s on us to build our own heaven or hell.
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Positive thinking is not magical thinking — accepting our whole self makes us more self-reliant. Embracing your negative side will help you become more patient and tolerant. It makes it easier to see the good within you and others.
Watch your thoughts because they become your destiny. Better indeed, watch your destiny, and your thoughts will help you get there.
This article first appeared on Medium.