The power of realistic thinking

La importancia de tomarse un respiro

America’s long and idyllic romance with success and positive thinking has turned the country into the fantasy land, the dream world of Dr. Pangloss, the thoughtless, harebrained character of Voltaire, in his satirical novel Candide, who expounded that this world of ours is the best of all possible worlds and everything that happens, good or bad, is for the best.

Books on positive thinking have been peddling ideas about the great powers of the mind to achieve whatever one’s heart desires. The late guru Napoleon Hill in his Think and Grow Rich told Americans: “What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” And Norman Vincent Peale in his The Power of Positive Thinking wrote: “Never talk defeat. Use words like hope, belief, faith, victory.” And he also hammered slogans like: “Expect to get what you expect.”

Americans from all walks of life went on a shopping spree to get their shot-in-the arm doses of blind optimism. In order to attract and find success, mind and thinking power, peace, motivation, happiness, riches, inner strength, friendship, love… they purchased potboilers with titles like How to Succeed at Everything you Do, Secrets of the millionaire Mind, Your Thoughts Can Change the World, The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People, The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success, The Conquest of Happiness, Guide to Personal Happiness, The Secret, Wishcraft: How to Get what you Really Want… People fear pain, failure and solitude, and lack the courage to look at reality in the eye, so they bury themselves under piles of farfetched and false promises.

Luckily, there appears to be a swing towards the opposite view. In his article: “The Power of Negative Thinking” Oliver Burkman, and writing about Albert Ellis, a pioneer of the negative path, quotes “…sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.”

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sides, How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, has hit the nail on the head, at long last. She explains that “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.” (emphasis mine). People hold the belief that it is terrible if things do not turn out fine, positively. That belief creates guilt and anxiety.

Also read: 5 Lifelong habits to feel happy in midlife

El poder curativo de la sonrisa

I preach realistic thinking and I lean on a quote by Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965): “America was not built by wishful thinking. It was built by realists, and it will not be saved by guesswork and self deception. It will only be saved by hard work and facing the facts.” Let us not then lie to ourselves. Self deception about reality is absurd and leads to disaster.

Our forefathers invented realistic sayings like “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” If we do that, if we work hard towards attaining something, if we hope for the best and if in spite of our efforts nothing comes to fruition, we will not despair if we have a plan B beforehand, if we have prepared for the worst. He that does not look before finds himself behind.

Another proverb tells us that he who lives by hope will die by hunger, which has another version: He who lives by hope dances to an ill tune. Hope, positive thinking, ignoring obstacles, ignoring our own shortcomings, do not get us ready for the blind chance of fate and its adverse slings and arrows. Let’s brace up for whatever may come our way.

Realistic thinking will help us take the rough with the smooth. We are the result of accidents, and accidents will happen, no matter how positive we are.

Antonio Damasio sums it up in his Looking for Spinoza: “… nature is even more cruel and indifferent than we previously thought. While humans are equal opportunity victims of nature’s casual, unpremeditated evil, we are not obliged to accept it without response.” Nature and others can strike any time and make all our plans, our hopes, go sour and awry. So, let us not count our chickens before they are hatched, and keep a plan B, as I said before. Pray to God and keep your powder dry.

Realistic thinking will keep us on an even keel, level-headed, standing on our own two feet, with a cheerful countenance and good disposition, relying on ourselves.

The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of positive-thinking beliefs that have made so many people unhappy.

Delfín Carbonell Basset

Delfín Carbonell is a graduate of Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Ph.D. in Philology from Madrid and has authored 35 books in both English and Spanish, published by McGraw-Hill, Barron’s, Larousse, Anaya and Serbal. He has taught at Pitt, F&M, Scranton and Murray St. University.