Positive attitude in the widespread pop version gives the impression that all you have to do is think the right thoughts and feel the right feelings.
Critics of the pop version respond with the accusation that if that's all it takes then it amounts to an ego trip of self-delusion about how the world ought to be.
Positive attitude is not just the thoughts you think nor is it just being happy or having good feelings.
It's not just self-delusion, either.
Properly understood it is a process of developing control over your states of mind and aligning the social, economic, ecological and political systems in which you are embedded to assist you as you navigate towards optimal states of mind.
The ultimate positive attitude is about always learning and always connecting with both the people around you and your world.
Attitude is a combination of your state of mind and your orientation to the world around you. You can read my detailed exploration of different definitions of attitude by clicking here.
What it boils down to is
- there is a literal core definition of attitude that refers to things and their orientation in space and
- metaphorical extensions from that literal core that refer to how our minds are oriented relative to the world and our experiences.
The question of "positive" attitude is making sure your mind is oriented in a direction that is beneficial.
Positive Attitude vs. Negative Attitude
Positive versus negative in this case refers to whether you will benefit from your states of mind.
The practical way to explore the benefits of different states of mind is to
- develop increasing control over your states of mind and
- experiment with different states of mind to find out what benefits you get from them.
The key is developing control and that is why I promote the idea of teaching kids attitude first.
Positive Attitude is Psychologically Inclusive
The more you can control your state of mind independent of the world around you, the more freedom you will experience.
But, positive attitude is also about being fully engaged with the world and your experience of it.
This is why positive attitude is not about the content of your thoughts and emotions.
You can have thoughts that are completely out of touch with reality and you can have emotions that you cannot safely express in some situations.
If you do not have control over your state of mind then when you have those kinds of thoughts and feelings they may prevent you from dealing effectively with reality.
A truly positive attitude must accommodate all the thoughts, feelings and experiences that you can have, but in service to what is required to make the best of the situation you are in.
A negative attitude separates you from the world or from aspects of yourself by denying that some thoughts, feelings or experiences are valid or appropriate.
A positive attitude, on the other hand, connects you with the world and yourself regardless of the feelings and experiences that you have. (This is naturally assuming relatively normal variations of both good and bad situations, not severe traumas.)
Positive Attitude in Education
In education positive attitude is not mere obedience.
Nor is it unreflective or unthinking conformity.
A positive attitude in education is about learning to be in touch with reality, which inherently means a life long process of continuously deepening our practice of disillusionment.
Disillusionment is how we see through the illusions that our minds naturally generate to help us get better and better at dealing with the infinite complexity of the world and our place in it.
We can never gain a complete understanding of what causes the world to be the way it is nor how we cause things to happen in the world.
But we do know that we can cause things to happen and that we must exercise responsibility for the conditions we cause in people's lives, even though we know we are not the sole cause of anything.
The frame of reference for attitude in education should be our ability to perceive accurately, think clearly and act effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations.
A state of mind that diminishes the accuracy of our perceptions, muddles our thinking, decreases the effectiveness of our actions, and/or interferes with our ability to select our own goals and aspirations is negative.
A state of mind that increases the accuracy of our perceptions, clarifies our thinking, expands the effectiveness of our actions, and/or supports our ability to select our own goals and aspirations is positive.
Assessing Positive Attitude
How do we assess or judge the difference between positive and negative attitudes?
In general we have the common sense emotional assessment option.
Emotions such as anger, fear, depression, and sadness are pretty universally recognized as negative states of mind if they occur with undue intensity or frequency.
Of course, the opposite emotions of happiness, joy, ecstasy etc. can also be negative if they are too intense with too much frequency.
The fact is that we need a social group in which to calibrate our judgment of our own and other people's states of mind because we cannot do it alone.
Collective judgments of attitude should also be based on states of mind, but more precisely on how the systems we put in place affect our states of mind.
I believe that the most basic elements of our social systems are
- the structures of governance we put in place to manage our own and other people's behavior for the common good,
- the processes of exchange we go through with each other and our environment to meet our needs, and
- the patterns of consciousness that result from living within those governance structures and exchange processes.
The measure of success should be increasing the patterns of consciousness that we recognize as optimal states of mind such as purpose, optimism, cognitive order, cognitive complexity, cooperation, and agency.
As we support each other to achieve these observable states, then we will find our perceptions become increasingly accurate, our thinking gets clearer, the effectiveness of our actions will be enlarged and we will be supported to select our own goals and aspirations.
Positive Attitude is a Community Project
Positive attitude is the result of mutually engaging with the world and each other; provided that the engagement is based on accurately perceiving the situation, thinking clearly about the situation and acting effectively to achieve our goals.
This means that we accurately perceive how our actions and choices have both long and short term effects on not only those in our immediate vicinity in time and space, but those who are far away and in times to come.
Negative attitudes are the result of disengaging from the world and each other.
When we forget or ignore our connectedness and the consequences of our actions, then we will act foolishly.
We cannot ever know the full consequences of any action, but we can always strive to know more than we did before.
And that is the ultimate positive attitude; always learning and connecting ever more with each other and our world.
In practical terms whatever attitude we have, positive or negative, we can (and will) seek out and find other people who will reinforce and support our attitude.
If we shift to a new attitude after holding an old one for a long time, then we find ourselves surrounded by the people we collected around us when we developed our previous attitude, so it may be a challenge to maintain the shift if they are not shifting in a similar way.
The key to creating a better world is improving your attitude; improving your ability to accept and deal with who you are, how you feel, whatever you experience, and the world in which those things happen to you.
As you become better able to accept and deal effectively with yourself and the world, then you will also find support for your attitude.
Attitude in Politics
There is one final level of attitude in groups that is worth considering, political attitudes.
The polarity of positive versus negative in politics is one that is often noticed but I don't know that anyone has really considered it deeply.
What would it mean to have a seriously positive politics?
That is, not a positivity that ignores the bad, ugly, unpleasant things in the world, but a positive political message and organization that is deeply engaged with the world and makes an effective difference for the better.
The frame of reference that I think is relevant in politics is the metaphors that are used by politicians and activists to explain their vision of the world.
A negative political vision is one in which we are stopping negative forces in the world, slowing negative movements, reacting against other people, suppressing vices, dividing groups or controlling negative human impulses.
A positive political vision is one in which we accelerate positive movements, encourage virtuous behavior, support people to be better and improve their lives, or enabling freedom that contributes to the common good.
Holding onto a positive attitude politically does run some risk of being used for negative purposes but only if we do not honestly observe how people's lives are actually being affected by our actions.
But that is the risk of deceiving ourselves that we run everyday, so it is easily reduced by regular practices of empathy and compassion that help us to connect and re-connect with other people and our world.
In order to maintain a positive attitude it is not enough to have control of your states of mind, it is also necessary to be embedded within systems of exchange and governance that are designed to support your on-going engagement with reality and supports seeking optimal states of mind.
This is what seems to be missing in the popular culture version of the concept.
The keys to achieving a proper attitude are control over your own states of mind (which is hinted at in the pop culture version) and actively engaging in the world to create systems of support that consistently result in more people having more control over their own states of mind, too.
We humans are fundamentally state of mind optimizers and we are embedded within complex systems that have an alignment that can either guide us towards or divert us away from optimal states.
So the challenge is to think about attitude in terms of the effects of embedded systems, not as an individual test of will power.