Monday, July 2, 2007

Plus Minus

I love a website called Edge. Every year, the editors pose a question to a number of leading scientists and philosophers. This year's question is "What are you optimistic about? Why?" Some of the answers are quite intriguing, and they inspired me to ask all of you the same. The answers on Edge lean toward the scientific, but obviously we will have a much different take on the question. Specifically, I'd like to ask you what you are optimistic about with regard to your personal life.

Shortly after I read the Edge answers, I came across a great article on the power of negative thinking. In it, John Gravois argues that blindly reciting Oprah-esque mantras to oneself is dangerous, and that some forms of negative thinking, such as envisioning horrible (but plausible) events to plan a reaction, actually help people retain more control over their own lives. For example, imagining what actions you might take if that mean dog across the street were to break from his leash is probably going to help you a lot more than thinking to yourself "I'm good enough, I'm strong enough, and doggonit, people like me." What are some of the negative thinking exercises you regularly engage in that you believe help you in your daily life, or that you think might help you in a future scenario?

I'm interested to see your answers to these questions, because I've been intrigued by thought experiments lately. The gist of my question is this: how does your negative or positive thinking affect your daily life? What sorts of positive or negative thought experiments do you execute on a regular basis?


MIA said...

As a member of the yoga industry, this thought experiment has surfaced in several different instances. Lululemon is fairly influential in these parts, and seems to be permeating the international scene. I recently wrote a letter to one of their staff member criticizing their support of "The Secret". The influence of "The Secret" didn't stop there. A studio where I teach held an evening viewing of the movie. I didn't rock the boat over that one: I choose my battles, I guess. Needless to say, I find the sort of sloppy self-help represented by this movie/oprah-cult reprehensible.

Thus, I am interested in how 'negative' thinking can be useful. I like to think of it as 'practical' thinking. For instance, wearing a helmet while riding my bike requires some negative thinking. Further, investing in private healthcare requires, in my case, some quite serious negative thinking; the sort that, apparently, I'm not quite ready for.

In some cases, it's a matter of number crunching. Is it more expensive for me pay monthly (out-of-pocket) for health coverage or to cover the appendix operation? I'm betting on the former being more cost-effective. But, what are the chances of me getting appendicitis (pretty f-ing slim).

I digress: into the many, many issues surrounding health-care.

The question remains: What am I most optomistic about?

Well, I think it might be human potential. We live in an exciting time. It's dangerous, sure.

But, I like to remain optomistic about the ability of science and human intelligence to solve problems: of climate change and environmental isssues. There are catastrophes happening every day. And every day we have the opportunity to affect change, to meet the world where it is and find solutions!!

I think it is a meeting of the world and the human mind that will be astonishing!

[I haven't read the links yet. But, I this is a great thought experiment.)

thecrazydreamer said...

Negative thinking

When I hear the phrase negative thinking I initially interpret the word "negative" as unconstructive or harmful. But really, there can be very constructive negative thinking like having acknowledging risk and preparing contingency plans. At the same time, there's destructive negative thinking like worrying, panic, and self-fulfilling pessimism.

I can't speak for Oprah, but I would imagine her perspective is seeing the overwhelmingly negative perspective the people she's trying to reach have. She might assert that poor black women living in the ghetto's of Chicago need an escape of hope for a better day for the one hour they spend watching her show far more than they need to be reminded of their devastating reality. I doubt she'd advocate abandonment of constructive negative thinking.

Obviously there are people who swing too far to either direction. There are the gamblers who just don't realize they could lose, and the hopeless who don't realize they could make more of themselves.

To make this personal, I'm applying for a new job right now. I'm fully aware of the negative outcomes that are possible: the job isn't right for me, they don't want me, my boss finds out I'm interviewing for a new job and he's not happy... even silly things like my new job might want me to wear a suit and tie to work or might expect me to be in to work by 7am every day. I evaluate the situations and reassure myself of my course of actions and that things will be okay regardless. If they don't hire me, I'm fortunate enough to have a good job right now. If the job isn't right for me, I'm fortunate enough to be able to turn it down, etc. This seems to me to be a better approach than swinging either direction too far. If I am too optimistic, I might not prepare for the interview well, I might accept a job that isn't right for me, or I might even do something crazy like quit my current job before I've procured a new one. On the other hand, I could be too negative, and not even bother applying, or even if I applied, my lack of confidence may become self-fulfilling and I may be passed up for the job because of it.

Like most things in life, it seems like it comes down to a balance.

forrest said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
forrest said...

"What are you optimistic about and why?"

I'm optimistic about...the potential for human change, on a large scale, and if you zero in on Anna-world, I'm more directly optimistic about the potential change in my life, the adventures and traumas, all the dualities that are going to grow and bloom and pass on again throughout this life I have to live. I'm optimistic about becoming a great saleswoman, about my future with editing, about the love my B and I have, about having children and trying to do a great job of raising them, I'm optimistic about being able to watch them grow and try all sorts of things and ideas and substances and whatever else interests them on for size, I'm interested in the passage of time from now until my death and all the people that come through my life and affect me and how I become affected and how I grow, then and at the very end of it all, I'm optimistic and curious about my death.

In terms of thought experiment, I agree with tcd about "defending" Oprah. As for myself, I think often of the value of positive thinking but not to the extreme of living with my head in the clouds or stuck in the mud. But I've found that the statements "Be careful what you wish for" and "Be careful what you say" often fall true.

But I think, on the whole, its not so much positive thinking and mantras and visualization that I focus on, but rather attitude. I really do think everyone has a choice (ok, not everyone but most people--some people really do have imbalanced hormones or other excuses) in how they see the world. Some of the most unlucky people have found a way to stay positive, keep themselves less stressed out and those around them happy. It's your choice. It's my choice to get over the hurt, trauma, whatever that was "done" to me. The losses that I've taken. And move on or not.

So, pretty much, the thought experiments that I practice most frequently have to do with discovering ways I can most relax myself (quit feeling stressed and worried) and ways I can benefit, grow, improve, learn something new.
Sometimes it does involve telling myself to quit repeating negative tapes, sometimes I try to reverse the negative tapes with positive mantras, but mostly I just occasionally talk to myself, convince myself to change my core way of thinking about something. Especially if I've had advice from others in my life that my sight is off, my understanding imbalanced, wrong, or stupid.

thecrazydreamer said...

"every day, in every way it's getting better and better."

there are a lot of things i am optimistic about, and here are a few:

it's cliche, but think about how much has changed in the last 20 years, and imagine what we'll have 20 years from now. technology is changing the world, and i believe it's changing it for the better.

i think its no coincidence that the most dogmatic (the racists, the religious, the misogynists, republicans, etc.) are the least technologically savvy in the world. it's easier to hate black people, heathens, women, homosexuals, or whoever if you've never met one. it's easier to hold onto those beliefs if everyone you know takes those beliefs for granted. but with things like the internet, and cell phones, and more accessible travel options, these people are being exposed to different beliefs. this won't always change a person, but it will often confront them with their belief and possibly make them feel the need to justify it or rethink their position. while i was evaluating my basic religious beliefs, i was able to chat with a buddhist through instant messenger, and hear from a unique perspective. that is a perspective that i would've never known if not for the technology, because i've still to this day never met a buddhist in real life.

education is changing drastically, too. no longer is school going to be about memorizing facts. it will become about actually teaching children how to learn, and how to find things out, and how to evaluate data. i think about my school experience, and those things were never really taught (though i managed to learn them). instead i have a million "facts" in my head that are distorted as my memory fades and are simply not reliable. imagine 13 years of education where the focus is on applying knowledge instead of simply acquiring it.

politically, we're already seeing the pendulum swinging away from the religious right. not even the republican candidates are willing to associate with those right-wing nutjobs anymore. the neo-cons are all being sent to prison, one by one (though everyone knows they'll all be pardoned on bush's last day in office). there's a handful of candidates with a legitimate shot at the presidency, and i only have serious complaints against a couple of them.

I'm also optimistic about my personal life. I am excited about my new portfolio, and the prospect of eventually finding a new job to transition to. And I'm definitely optimistic about my relationship with wyd becoming even stronger when she moves to chicago.

whatyoudream said...

Since there are so many responses to Edge’s question, I thought I’d point out a few I thought were particularly interesting, for obvious reasons.

Daniel Dennett’s response: “I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion.” (tcd, Dennett’s response echoes your optimism and the sentiment that racism, bigotry and general small-mindedness are quickly becoming extinct as technology advances and spreads.)

Richard Dawkins’s response also talks about the demise of religion, in his case due to physicists discover the “theory of everything” and pairing it with Darwin’s solution to the biological problem, resulting in a sufficient explanation for life.

Sam Harris’s response is about moral progress, and has a good, short summary of the answer to the question, “How do we know if things are right or wrong if there’s no God?”

Michael Shermer’s response: That science is winning out over magic and superstition.

I don’t do much positive thinking. Instead, I always assume things will go well while imagining that the worst will happen. Sure, I look forward to new scientific discoveries and innovative technologies, and I can’t wait for grad school this fall. I look forward to moving in to my very own apartment, buying my groceries and picking out the best places in the library to study. Long-term, I do hope that there is an afterlife, that injustice gets rectified, that religious people become less fanatic and that technology and science lead to a better-informed, more moral society, but I couldn’t say I’m optimistic about any of it.

In fact, optimism is so foreign a concept that I looked it up on to make sure I knew what it is: disposed to take a favorable view of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome; expecting the best in this best of all possible worlds. That last part I can definitely say I don’t ascribe to, and am not even really sure I know what it means (yes, I know it’s referring to Leibniz and other optimists, but I believe this world just is and that it can’t be the “best” or “worse” in any meaningful sense). My assumption that things will be fine is based on my experience that is has always been fine, relatively speaking. If suddenly I encountered massive amounts of tragedy, I have to be honest and say that I would be surprised by it, even though I know it’s always possible.

Through and through, I am a realist. I’ve watched enough news, read enough novels and seen enough films that I know that unexpected things happen all the time, that we must make the best of this one life we have and that things don’t always happen according to reason. Affecting certainty concerning the outcome of events is not helpful to me and I believe can only lead to disappointment. I hope for the best, know the worst and almost always come out somewhere in between. The one area where I am unrealistically optimistic is when it comes to death: I’ve never really known anyone who’s died. I am optimistic (subconsciously, because I find myself contemplating my own and others’ deaths on a regular basis) about everyone I know staying alive.

I’ve been finishing up Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he reviews six major philosophers and the ways in which a person might use their ideas to better equip herself for life. One of the philosophers, Seneca, experienced quite a bit of injustice and tragedy. As a Stoic philosopher, one behavior Seneca advocated was knowing the worst – that is, death, or the nothingness which is the same nothingness before birth – and by knowing it to be unafraid of it. (Also, to prepare yourself for misfortune by voluntarily experiencing hunger and poverty on an occasional basis as you accept the good things that come your way, prepared for dealing with everything being taken from you.)

One thing that lingered from my former Christian life is the fear of hell or whatever awaits us after death, so if I’m hopeful or optimistic about anything, it is that I will lose that fear and become unafraid of death. I do not, however, anticipate that that will happen any time soon.

indubitably said...

Hey guys-

I was on a long bike trip when I recieved an invitation to contribute to soul and meat, and it seems like the site has really taken off. Every one of the posts I've read so far has been worth reading. Is it too late to join up? I'm afraid my invite expired and I'm looking at the site with a healthy amount of respect and writerly jealously.

whatyoudream said...

Welcome back, Indubitably. Hope the trip went well and look forward to "hearing your voice" on here.