Yes, we can!
Could the world solve its problems through positive thinking? It's not as daft as it sounds, says Michael Coupar
For me, "positive thinking" and "negative thinking" are more a process than a state. They are our personalways of recognising opportunities and recognising risks, and the actions we take to make use of this recognition.
If there is no action, there is no reason. If you don't recognise and accept both negative and positive, then you are merely storing up trouble for yourself. If you are always looking for an end point to stop at, you will never be satisfied. If you always lay blame elsewhere, you will remain stuck.
The key, for me, is to blend positive and negative, so you have a healthy dose of both, while remaining firmly positive overall. This is not what I see in the all-too-common either-or approach of Western culture, be it black orwhite, mind or body, "you're with us or against us", or positive or negative. It is also notably absent from the "banish all negative thinking" elixir peddled by many so-called "positive thinkers".
Asuitably positive blend of positive and negative can generate far more success than positive thinking alone ever can. This is because it helps us to find opportunities where positive thinking alonewould not even perceive there to be a problem or issue. You could say that it is possible to become more positive in the long run by being more negative in the short run.
So much for what I mean by the term. Butwhat kind of problems, if any, can my kind of positive thinking solve? At the most personal level, it can help us to live healthier, longer lives. Scientists have found that the part of the brain that is active when we are happy and thinking positively also stimulates and strengthens the immune system, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and encourages deep sleep. So if you catch a cold and are stressed, try being more positive by thinking about the fun you'll have when you are well, put your best smile on and count down the days. Better still, take Bob Hope's advice that "laughter is an instant vacation" and watch a comedy or two.
Thinking positively also "distracts" the part of your brain that feels pain, so you notice the pain less. This is something that always works for me.
As for living longer, it's interesting that Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, who was the world's oldest person back in 2005, was a great believer in positive thinking. Her favourite phrase in response to something going wrong is said to have been "there's no point in moaning". In otherwords, she recognised the negative and then dealt with it positively.
Does this have anything to do with solving the world's problems? I think it might. Many big global problems are just a lot of small, individual problems all put together, and small, individual solutions can make a huge cumulative difference. Small solutions applied widely, or multiple solutions applied simultaneously, can have a big impact. This is certainly true of health. Itmay also be true of wealth.
The key point here is that if you keep a positive, open mind, you might just stumble across an opportunity. I remember driving along in torrential rain one night, struggling to see through the windscreen and finding the chop-chop-chop of the wipers distracting. Now I could have got fed up with this and ended up with a mild dose of road rage. Instead, I thought positively about the negative and came up with an idea to replace the windscreen wipers with a film that absorbs water and pumps it around the windscreen: no more distracting wipers or splashes and so, hopefully, lives saved.
I subsequently spoke to some engineers about this and although they ultimately decided that it wasn't viable, the important point was that it might have been. What's more, if it had had commercial potential, this would only have become apparent through the blend of negative and mostly positive thinking that produced the idea.
Similar principles apply with groups of people, such as businesses. The difference here is that you need to get the right balance between the people in your group. Just as, at an individual level, we each need more positive thinking than negative thinking on the whole, so the group must contain more positive thinkers than negative thinkers on the whole. To put it another way, it needs more peoplewhose first response to an idea, opportunity or problem is to say "yes, let's run with that" than people whose first response is "yes, but...".
I've lived on both sides of the Atlantic and one of the most important differences for me is the far greater tendency of North Americans to say "yes, let's run with that" when an opportunity is raised, while many more Brits say "yes, but...". In general, North Americans fear failure less and so keep a more positive outlook. This allows them to build momentum quickly and so seize many opportunities. There are many other factors that have contributed to the creation and growth of spectacular successes such as Microsoft, Google and Dell, but nothing at all would have happened without those crucial first few words being the right ones, the positive ones.
All of which brings us to the biggest scale of all: national, international and global problems. Can positive thinking help here? I think it can, as long as there is an extra ingredient present: charisma. Charisma is essential, because it is often difficult for individuals with potential solutions to large-scale problems to find the right people to deal with or recruit to their cause. So the gift of being able to persuade people over to the positive side of a tipping point is, at this level, crucial. Fortunately, charismatic individuals appear quite often.
Take Bob Geldof and Band Aid. I suppose it is possible that, without him, governments might have dealt with the Ethiopian famine crisis, but much of the help that Africa's starving have received, over many years, must be downto Geldof's overall positive thinking. This capacity to fix things that have gone badly wrong, to come up with positives to overcome specific negatives, is also a characteristic of great politicians. Among UK prime ministers, Churchill is an obvious example. Others might cite Thatcher or Blair. In their early years in power, all three had much in common with Geldof and I believe that the each was a powerful force for good during those years. In each case, it was their overall positive thinking and charisma that made this possible. They were infectious where they needed to be.
Today, the biggest problem facing the world is probably climate change. Can positive thinking help with this? Again, I think it can. We are fast approaching a point where an overwhelming majority of people, from the average person to world leaders, will be in broad agreement, all seeking positive change. Each on their own is unlikely to make enough difference, but put them all together and the potential is definitely there.
The inauguration of Barack Obama will be a big step in the right direction. Finally, the last major negative thinking roadblock will be gone, charisma will have a chance and global action on pollution should, hopefully, take place.
But real change will come not from the top, but from lots of small groups and individuals all over the world. Only small groups of scientists, engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs will have the almost unlimited potential to come together, be creative, and say "yes, let's run with that". And everyone – you, me, individuals all over the world – can decide to put our brains in gear again and remember how to waste less and live more responsibly.
So, yes, I believe positive thinking can solve the world's problems. And if you feel as though you are about to say "yes, but...", just add one more t and then get off it!