Being Positive

Guest post by Graham Williams.

“The frames our minds create define – and confine – what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view”. That is what Rosamund Stone & Benjamin Zander explain in their book The Art of Possibility. Thus, not blind optimism nor despairing pessimism, but realistic reasoning and choosing – recognizing that life consists of ups and downs, happiness and suffering, and deliberately searching for the stars through the bars – so that we mindfully transform our suffering.

Zen Koan: Disciple: “Tell me teacher – when times of great trouble, trial, and tribulation arrive, what should we do?” Teacher: “Welcome them”.

The critical default settings

Neuroscientists point out that our default setting is to be critical, negative. Research shows that self-criticism is associated with lower resilience. Conversely, positive self-compassion is associated with higher resilience, and neuroscientists also point out that because of our brain’s plasticity, we are able to rewire and establish positivity.
Barbara Frederickson has shown that positive emotions introduce us to possibility, that is – our minds are opened, broadened. Being more positive makes us more skillful and adept at seeing opportunities, solving problems. And when combined with the characteristic of empathy the result is often a snowball effect resulting in a virtuous cycle of positive behaviors throughout an organization.

“The thief left it behind: the moon at my window” – Ryōkan

Adopting a positive attitude is, in the first instance, a choice. We can choose to have an attitude of entitlement, being deserving of more – or an attitude of being grateful for the gifts we have received (physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual). A choice that we then constantly reinforce by letting go what we cling to and control, being grateful, embracing our suffering as best we can, reframing in order to reveal what is positive. Albus Dumbledore, the Harry Potter Professor, said: “It is our choices that show what we truly are far more than our abilities”.

“All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast” – Proverbs 15:15

The Work

Byron Katie teaches a method of self-inquiry known as ‘The Work’. “The Work is a way of identifying and questioning any stressful thought. It consists of four questions and a turnaround. This is a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. The four questions are:

1) Is it true?
2) Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4) Who would you be without the thought?

The turnaround involves considering the thought in a reversed form–changing subject and object, changing yes and no, or changing it to be self-referential. For example, for the thought ‘My husband should treat me better’, turnarounds could include ‘I should treat my husband better’, ‘I should treat myself better’ or “My husband shouldn’t treat me better’”.

Choose your attitude

A friend told me about an incident in a restaurant. One of the guests knocked her plate off the table. As it crashed to the floor and smashed, there was a stunned silence. A moment of acute embarrassment? No – in Greek party tradition, someone at a nearby table shouted “Opa!” and the entire mood shifted. We always have a choice: to dampen the fires of hope, aspiration, and enthusiasm (our own and others) or to ignite them.

Be grateful for what you give and receive Click To Tweet

Frankl’s experiences in Oświęcim in Poland (German: Auschwitz, Yiddish Oshpitsin) are well chronicled. One of his observations was: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

Naikan is a Japanese way of practicing self-reflection that combines meditating and journaling. Naikan means “looking inside” so that we learn to develop and express our gratitude, discard our “you owe me” attitudes, improve our well-being and contentedness, become more positive as we realize that all that we have to be grateful for is unmerited, and engage and act to uplift, support, and care for others. It’s a way of counting our blessings (Gregg Krech’s downloadable work-booklet elaborates on this in a very practical way), contemplating the impact of our actions and omissions, and examining our shadow side based on three questions:

“What have I received from …..? (It may be his/her time, a nod of appreciation, a correction, support, and care …. A friend occasionally sends me an SMS along these lines, ‘I was thinking about you today and wanted to encourage you to keep on ….”

“What have I given to … ? (Our self-centred, disconnected way of life often means that our giving is minimal …. )

“What troubles, difficulties, ‘suffering’ have I caused to ……? (Ignored a phone call, failed to include, been abrupt or – as we often excuse ourselves – been unaware (thus ‘inadvertently, unwittingly or by mistake’ hurt this someone)

These questions, honestly and fully answered, provide much food for soul – thought. They also foster the development of a route to compassion for self and others. Now that’s positive!

Graham Williams is a certified management consultant, thought leader, business narrative practitioner and author based in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at

This is a Summer guest post.

Marcella Bremer is blogging her next book: “Positive Power at Work – How to make a positive difference from any position.” She will resume this series in September 2017.
In the meantime, to catch up reading – start with post #1 or check the Positive Power overview and read the Positive Agent Manifesto.

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