The Expansive (Positive) Attitude

Some fifty years ago, many medical experts began to think of health in a new and revolutionary way. Instead of focusing on specific problems, such as digestion or skin ailments or the condition of the heart, they decided it was much better to look at the human body as a whole. If people improved their diet and their exercise habits, this would have a beneficial effect on all of the organs, because the body is an interconnected whole.

This seems obvious to us now, but such an organic way of thinking has great application to our psychological health as well. Now more than ever people focus on their specific problems—their depression, their lack of motivation, their social inadequacies, their boredom. But what governs all of these seemingly separate problems is our attitude, how we view the world on a daily basis. It is how we see and interpret events. Improve the overall attitude and everything else will elevate as well—creative powers, the ability to handle stress, confidence levels, relationships with people. It was an idea first promulgated in the 1890s by the great American psychologist William James, but it remains a revolution waiting to happen.

A negative, constricting attitude is designed to narrow down the richness of life at the cost of our creative powers, our sense of fulfillment, our social pleasures, and our vital energies. Without wasting another day under such conditions, your goal is to break out, to expand what you see and what you experience. You want to open the aperture of the lens as wide as you can. Here is your road map.

How to view the world: See yourself as an explorer. With the gift of consciousness, you stand before a vast and unknown universe that we humans have just begun to investigate. Most people prefer to cling to certain ideas and principles, many of them adopted early on in life. They are secretly afraid of what is unfamiliar and uncertain. They replace curiosity with conviction. By the time they are thirty, they act as if they know everything they need to know.

As an explorer you leave all that certainty behind you. You are in continual search of new ideas and new ways of thinking. You see no limits to where your mind can roam, and you are not concerned with suddenly appearing inconsistent or developing ideas that directly contradict what you believed a few months before. Ideas are things to play with. If you hold on to them for too long, they become something dead. You are returning to your childlike spirit and curiosity, from before you had an ego and being right was more important than connecting to the world. You explore all forms of knowledge, from all cultures and time periods. You want to be challenged.

By opening the mind in this way, you will unleash unrealized creative powers, and you will give yourself great mental pleasure. As part of this, be open to exploring the insights that come from your own unconscious, as revealed in your dreams, in moments of tiredness, and in the repressed desires that leak out in certain moments. You have nothing to be afraid of or to repress there. The unconscious is merely one more realm for you to freely explore.

How to view adversity: Our life inevitably involves obstacles, frustrations, pain, and separations. How we come to handle such moments in our early years plays a large role in the development of our overall attitude toward life. For many people, such difficult moments inspire them to restrict what they see and experience. They go through life trying to avoid any kind of adversity, even if this means never really challenging themselves or getting much success in their careers. Instead of learning from negative experiences, they want to repress them. Your goal is to move in the opposite direction, to embrace all obstacles as learning experiences, as means to getting stronger. In this way you embrace life itself.

By 1928 the actress Joan Crawford had a reasonably successful career in Hollywood, but she was feeling increasingly frustrated by the limited roles she was receiving. She saw other less talented actresses vault ahead of her. Perhaps the problem was that she was not assertive enough. She decided she needed to voice her opinion to one of the most powerful production chiefs on the MGM lot, Irving Thalberg. Little did she realize that Thalberg viewed this as impudence and that he was vindictive by nature. He therefore cast her in a Western, knowing that was the last thing she wanted and that such a fate was a dead end for many an actress.

Joan had learned her lesson and decided to embrace her fate. She made herself love the genre. She became an expert rider. She read up on the Old West and became fascinated by its folklore. If that’s what it took to get ahead, she decided to become the leading actress of Westerns. At the very least this would expand her acting skills. This became her lifelong attitude toward work and the supreme challenges an actress faced in Hollywood, where careers were generally very short. Every setback was a chance to grow and develop.

In 1946 twenty-year-old Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X) began serving an eight-to-ten-year prison sentence for burglary. Prison generally has the effect of hardening the criminal and narrowing his already narrow view of the world. Instead, Malcolm decided to reassess his life. He began to spend time in the prison library and fell in love with books and learning. As he saw it now, prison afforded him the best possible means of changing himself and his attitude toward life. With so much time on his hands, he could study and earn himself a degree. He could develop the discipline he had always been missing. He could train himself to become an expert speaker. He embraced the experience without any bitterness and emerged stronger than ever. Once he left prison, he saw any difficulty, large or small, as a means to test and toughen himself

Although adversity and pain are generally beyond your control, you have the power to determine your response and the fate that comes from that.

How to view yourself: As we get older, we tend to place limits on how far we can go in life. Over the years we internalize the criticisms and doubts of others. By accepting what we think to be the limits of our intelligence and creative powers, we create a self-fulfilling dynamic. They become our limits. You do not need to be so humble and selfeffacing in this world. Such humility is not a virtue but is rather a value that people promote to help keep you down. Whatever you are doing now, you are in fact capable of much more, and by thinking that, you will create a very different dynamic.

In ancient times, many great leaders, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, felt that they were descended from gods and part divine. Such self-belief would translate into high levels of confidence that others would feed off and recognize. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. You do not need to indulge in such grandiose thoughts, but feeling that you are destined for something great or important will give you a degree of resilience when people oppose or resist you. You will not internalize the doubts that come from such moments. You will have an enterprising spirit. You will continually try new things, even taking risks, confident in your ability to bounce back from failures and feeling destined to succeed.

When Chekhov had the epiphany about the ultimate freedom he could create for himself, he had what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience.” These are moments in which you are lifted out of the daily grind and you sense that there is something larger and more sublime in life that you have been missing. In the case of Chekhov it was sparked by a crisis, by loneliness, and it led to the sensation of complete acceptance of people and the world around him. These moments can come from exerting yourself past what you thought were your limits; they can come from overcoming great obstacles, climbing a mountain, taking a trip to a very different culture, or the deep bonding that comes from any form of love. You want to deliberately go in search of such moments, stimulate them if you can. They have the effect, as they did with Chekhov, of altering your attitude for good. They expand what you think about your possibilities and about life itself, and the memory is something you will always return to for supreme inspiration.

In general, this way of looking at yourself runs counter to the cool, ironic attitude that many people like to assume in the postmodern world—never too ambitious, never too positive about things or life, always affecting a nonchalant and very false humility. Such types see the positive, expansive attitude as Pollyannaish and simpleminded. But really their cool attitude is a clever mask for their great fears—of embarrassing themselves, of failing, of showing too much emotion. As with all such trends in culture, the cool attitude will eventually fade away, a remnant of the early twenty-first century. Moving in the opposite direction, you are much more progressive.

How to view your energy and health: Although we are all mortal and subject to illnesses beyond our control, we must recognize the role that willpower plays in our health. We have all felt this to some degree or another. When we fall in love or feel excited by our work, suddenly we have more energy and recover quickly from any illnesses. When we are depressed or unusually stressed, we become prey to all kinds of ailments. Our attitude plays an enormous role in our health, one that science has begun to explore and will examine in more depth in the coming decades. In general, you can safely push yourself beyond what you think are your physical limits by feeling excited and challenged by a project or endeavor. People get old and prematurely age by accepting physical limits to what they can do, making it a selffulfilling cycle. Those who age well continue to engage in physical activity, only moderately adjusted. You have wellsprings of energy and health you have yet to tap into.

How to view other people: First you must try to get rid of the natural tendency to take what people do and say as something personally directed at you, particularly if what they say or do is unpleasant. Even when they criticize you or act against your interests, more often than not it stems from some deep earlier pain they are reliving; you become the convenient target of frustrations and resentments that have been accumulating over the years. They are projecting their own negative feelings. If you can view people this way, you will find it easier to not react and get upset or become embroiled in some petty battle. If the person is truly malicious, by not becoming emotional yourself you will be in a better place to plot the proper countermove. You will save yourself from accumulating hurts and bitter feelings.

See people as facts of nature. They come in all varieties, like flowers or rocks. There are fools and saints and sociopaths and egomaniacs and noble warriors; there are the sensitive and the insensitive. They all play a role in our social ecology. This does not mean we cannot struggle to change the harmful behavior of the people who are close to us or in our sphere of influence; but we cannot reengineer human nature, and even if we somehow succeeded, the result could be a lot worse than what we have. You must accept diversity and the fact that people are what they are. That they are different from you should not be felt as a challenge to your ego or self-esteem but as something to welcome and embrace. From this more neutral stance, you can then try to understand the people you deal with on a deeper level, as Chekhov did with his father. The more you do this, the more tolerant you will tend to become toward people and toward human nature in general. Your open, generous spirit will make your social interactions much smoother, and people will be drawn to you.               

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