Why positive thoughts aren’t fulfilling:
Hello, my name is Noah Elkrief and in this blog post I’m going to talk about why positive thoughts aren’t enough to give you the happiness and fulfillment that you want. The happiness created by positive thoughts is definitely enjoyable and makes us happy. However, positive-thought happiness isn’t very strong or very fulfilling.
An exercise to help you see what feelings positive thoughts create
In order to help you see for yourself that positive thought happiness isn’t very fulfilling, I would like to ask you to engage with the following exercise.
1) Please take a moment to think back to a time when you achieved something you had really wanted for a long time. This could be the moment when you got a job offer, a promotion, learned that you had passed an important exam, won a championship title, got proposed to, or anything else. Try to remember how happy you were in the first moment when you got what you wanted. Remember how that felt. Think about the all encompassing and intense happiness that you had in that moment. It was pretty great, right?
2) Now, I would like you to think to yourself, “I am in my dream job”, “I am a licensed lawyer”, “I am a champion”, “I am married”, or “I am… whatever else it was that you achieved. How happy does it make you feel when you tell yourself this?
3) Lastly, please tell yourself the story of the moment when you achieved your goal. How does this memory make you feel right now?
Directly discovering how positive thoughts don’t create a fulfilling happiness
Was the quality of your happiness the same in each of these three scenarios? For the vast majority of us, the first few moments after we achieve a goal, we are fulfilled and overtaken with happiness.
On the other hand, when you think about the achievement now, how happy does it make you feel? It generally provides a pleasant feeling, but this feeling isn’t particularly strong. And, it is completely incomparable to the all-encompassing and intense happiness we experienced in the initial few moments when we got what we wanted.
The reason that our experiences of happiness are so different between the moment we got what we wanted, and the moments when we think about it, is simply because they are created by two very different causes. The first few moments of happiness when we get what want are created by the absence of thoughts, while our happiness later on is created by positive thoughts about the present or the past.
The happiness of getting what we want
If we manage to get anything in our life to match our definition of “perfect”, when we get what we want, we often immediately experience happiness. Despite how it seems, this immediate happiness is not created by the new circumstance itself or by positive thoughts. This happiness is actually the direct result of losing the thoughts that were creating our suffering.
If we have a goal, we almost always believe the following 3 thoughts:
1) “The way things are right now isn’t “good enough”. This creates a feeling of sadness, lack, and insufficiency in our life.
2) “I (someone else) is to blame for the current “bad” circumstances”. This creates a feeling of shame or anger.
3) “It would be “bad” if I never achieve my goal.” This thought creates anxiety and fear.
But, in the moment that we achieve our goal (i.e. make things “perfect”), there will be no more thoughts about how this particular circumstance is “bad”, no more thoughts about who is to blame for the “bad” circumstance, and no more thoughts about the possible “bad” outcome of not getting what we want. These negative thoughts created our sadness, anger, and anxiety about this specific circumstance. Therefore, when these negative thoughts leave, we are left with happiness. Happiness is what remains when there are no thoughts to create our suffering. This is the experience of the present moment.
If, in the moment that you got your achievement, the happiness was created by positive thoughts, then you would have the same experience in this moment when you tell yourself the same positive thoughts about achieving your goal (i.e. “I am a champion”). But, yet it doesn’t. The happiness is very different because they are created by 2 very different things.
There are a few reasons why our positive thoughts aren’t very fulfilling and don’t create the all-pervasive happiness that we experience when we get what we want.
In the midst of positive thoughts there are still negative thoughts
By nature, when we think some aspect of our lives is “great”, we also still believe that other aspects are “bad”. Therefore, when we think a positive thought, our happiness is generally being held back by the attention, whether conscious or not, that we’re giving to some negative thoughts in the background.
In other words, when you tell yourself a positive thought about something, that one thing is not your whole life. For example, if you say “I am successful”, “I am a lawyer”, or “I’m married”, it doesn’t eliminate all the other thoughts about how “I’m not good enough at this”, “he is not good enough at that”, “It would be bad if that happened”, or “It would be bad if they thought that about me”. These thoughts are still creating lack, disappointment, anger, anxiety, and worry underneath the surface when a positive thought/story is being told in your mind.
Positive thoughts are not stable or real
When we have a positive thought about something, it is usually easy (or at least possible) for that thought to change so that it becomes “worse”. Therefore, when we rely on positive thoughts to make us happy, there is almost always a constant subtle anxiety that our positive thought might change and we might lose our happiness.
For example, if you think about yourself, “I am attractive”, this would give you a little pleasure. Since you like this pleasure, of course you would not want this thought to change to “I am unattractive”. Obviously, it doesn’t feel nice to think “I am unattractive”. But, once you unconsciously decide that it would be “bad” to think “I am unattractive”, you start to feel a subtle anxiety about the possibility of that thought changing to “I am unattractive”. It’s not as though attractiveness is a real and stable thing, just “I am attractive” end of story. No, this thought can be affected of many different things such as gaining weight, skin problems, ageing, or anything else. In order to maintain your thought “I am attractive”, you may frequently worry about whether your face, clothes, and body meet your definition of “attractive”.
If others were to tell you that you are unattractive, or if you get rejected or broken up with, it would be harder to continue to believe, “I am attractive”. Therefore, you would naturally begin to worry about what others think.
Because positive thoughts aren’t real and tangible, they are not stable. Since they can be relatively easily lessened, worsened, eliminated, there is always at least a subtle worry of losing the positive thought. But, most often, it is a very apparent worry.
Memories are tinged with discontent about this moment
Generally, the most common time we go to memories is when we’re not content in this moment. When we are enjoying ourselves, we usually have no reason to start telling stories of the past. But, when we don’t like where we are, we go to our memories to provide us with a little enjoyable escape.
Therefore, even while we are telling the nice story from our past (the memory), if the memory doesn’t take our full 100% attention, a small portion of our attention is still given to our negative thoughts about this moment. These negative thoughts in the background create a sense of lack, and prevent us from fully experiencing the happiness of our memory (a positive thought). In addition, memories are also often tinged with the anxiety of knowing that we have to come back to this “worse” moment or from thinking that we may never have such a “good” moment again.
For example, if you think about your wonderful vacation on the beach last month, this will give you some pleasure, and maybe put a smile on your face. However, telling yourself this great story will also at least create subtle thoughts about how where you are right now isn’t as “good” as where you were, which creates the feeling that you are lacking something. We usually aren’t aware that the anxiety or negative thoughts are present when we are giving attention to our positive memory, but this is part of the reason why positive-memory happiness is a much less peaceful and satisfying experience than present-moment happiness.
Positive thoughts are pleasurable, but not enough
In conclusion, positive thoughts give us pleasure, but if you really want to be fulfilled, if you really want lasting peace in your life, you need to go beyond positive thoughts. And I welcome you to do it. I invite you to do it.