Five facts: One can learn to think through joy

Why do some people always feel good while others are continually unhappy? Personal circumstances do not explain everything: for some, the glass is half-full, and for others, it is half-empty.

Negative attitudes may be picked up from the environment. If people pay attention to negative things and mistakes at home, in school, or within their peer group, they may easily fall into negative thinking. In addition, people’s observations are influenced by the general attitudinal climate, which has in the main become more positive globally, even though it might not always seem so evident in our era of social media. For example, people were much more pessimistic in the Middle Ages.

Positivity can be learned. When people interact with their environment, they can strive to draw positive conclusions from their perceptions. For example, when working on a big project, a negative person may feel overwhelmed and unable to act. People with a proactive approach are able to divide the project into smaller, more managable tasks, meaning that they will experience feelings of success along the way, increasing their resources.

Focusing on the negatives is disadvantageous – but so is being overly positive. Negative observation evokes pessimistic feelings and prevents people from searching for possible solutions and alternatives. The resulting negative spiral can lead to increasingly deteriorating emotions and bad decisions. Generalising one’s perceptions to the global level – and the feelings of powerlessness that can result – may also fuel negativity. However, utopian positivity is also harmful. Positive observations must either be true or at least feasible in order for them to help in problem solving. People who think positively must be honest with themselves and others, and not close their eyes to real problems.

Observations are mostly about small things. People who think negatively may belittle smaller matters and emphasise global problems, even though a variety of smaller and positive factors might also be involved in these larger problems. After all, large entities consist of small parts. This is illustrated by a well-known Chinese proverb: a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. These small steps are an essential part of the journey and should be appreciated.

A pessimist and an optimist may get along. People who observe very different kinds of things in their environment will see the world in dissimilar ways. If a person who tends towards negative observation is socially open, however, he or she may take a positive view of more optimistic people and even learn from them. Positive people can usually also accept people who have a different mindset from their own.

Professor Martti T. Tuomisto was interviewed for this story. His areas of expertise include clinical psychology and the training of psychotherapists. He has developed a method called stimulus self-control, whereby people can regulate their thinking and observations.

Text: Anne Salomäki
Photograph: Jonne Renvall