I wonder what happens to you when you think about this coming decade.
What images flicker through your mind’s eye? Do you see COVID dragging on indefinitely, global recession, ongoing civil unrest, the rise of populism, Trump clinging to power, the Amazon burning, climate change starting to bite harder?
Or do you see COVID fading into memory, communities being rebuilt, many forms of inequality being surfaced and addressed, COP26 delivering unprecedented commitments to carbon reductions, humanity rising to the challenge of climate change?
And how do these thoughts make you feel? Even just reading my words, even though they are not your thoughts but mine, maybe the gloomy paragraph made you feel fearful, constricted, tense. And maybe the more optimistic paragraph made your shoulders relax, your chest expand, your spirits rise.
Which paragraph made you feel empowered to do something? Which paragraph helped you see possibilities, rather than obstacles? Which paragraph made you feel more creative, resourceful, inspired?
Of course, it’s never that simple. If you’re like me, you have days when you are glass half full, and other days when you are glass half empty. You might flip-flop between the two states several times in a day, or even in an hour, depending on which news headline you have just read. Sometimes everything seems possible, sometimes everything seems impossible.
Interviewed by TED’s Chris Anderson early in the COVID lockdown, author Elizabeth Gilbert observed that when asked what the long-term impacts of the COVID lockdown would be, her optimistic friends foresaw a utopian outcome, while her pessimistic friends foresaw a dystopian one.
In other words, and at the risk of stating the obvious, none of us know for sure what the future holds, so whatever we think we foresee is no more than a projection into the future of our personal worldview. And because our personal worldview is derived from what has happened in our past, our past (or, more to the point, how we choose to interpret our past) becomes the primary determinant of our expectations of the future.
And our expectations of the future have a better-than-random chance of becoming our actual future. Whether you come at this question from the spiritual, psychological or even the quantum perspective, perception shapes reality. (Stanford researchers say so.)
Here’s my personal take on it. When I think back over my life, I can conjure up many examples of times when it felt like everything was going to hell. Whether it was an expedition, or a relationship, or an accident that sent everything flying sideways at high speed, there have been times when I fought reality, feeling indignant and/or outraged that things hadn’t turned out as I expected. And yet I can look back now, and see how those events have shaped me for the better, forcing me to become stronger, more resourceful and more courageous than I would otherwise have been.
I can’t say for sure that there was a divine pattern at work to give me the experiences that I needed in order to learn what I needed to learn, but sometimes it has definitely felt that way. The principle that “everything happens for a reason” may or may not be true – no way of knowing – but pending proof either way, it definitely makes me feel better to believe that there is some rhyme or reason behind the perceived hardship, and one day I will be able to look back and be grateful for it.
As Max Ehrmann puts it in Desiderata, the words of which I have hanging in my bathroom:
“Even though it may not be clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
I perceive myself as a lucky person. And you could justifiably say that it’s easy for me to see myself that way – I am a well-educated person, born into a normally-abled, white-skinned body in a developed country, who is straight and cis and otherwise remarkably unremarkable. And I acknowledge all that privilege. But there are others, who on paper appear to be every bit as privileged as me, who see themselves as unlucky, and who approach the world with an attitude of fear and apprehension rather than faith and agency, while there are still others, who appear to have been dealt a less favourable hand, who transcend their circumstances to create an amazing life (like Nick Vujicic, born with no limbs).
There is a kind of infinite regression problem here – how do you become the kind of person who perceives opportunity rather than obstacles? If the accident of birth or early formative experiences have led to a very rational belief that the world is hostile and harsh, how do you bootstrap your way out of that mindset and into one that is more positive?
It’s learnable. This article in The Week on how to become luckier offers some very practical pointers to start.
- Maximize opportunities: Keep trying new things.
- Listen to hunches: Especially if it’s an area where you have some experience, trust your intuition.
- Expect good fortune: Be an optimist. A little delusion can be good.
- Turn bad luck into good: Don’t dwell on the bad. Look at the big picture.
Even when everything seems hopeless, scan your inner landscape for the most positive thought you can find and grab onto it. It’s a lifeline you can use to haul yourself out of the innermost cave.
“When you reach for the thought that feels better, the universe is now responding differently to you because of that effort. And so, the things that follow you get better and better, too. So it gets easier to reach for the thought that feels better, because you are on ever-increasing, improving platforms that feel better.” – Abraham-Hicks
The truth is, we don’t yet fully know how the universe works. In our 21st century arrogance and hubris, we might think we’re tremendously advanced, but heed the words that may or may not have been uttered by Lord Kelvin in 1900…
“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement”
…mere months before Max Planck described his famous postulate, thereby sowing the first seeds of the vast new field of quantum physics.
At the cutting edge of the new science, Don Hoffman’s work (summarised in an earlier blog post) suggests that reality is not as we perceive it, but that “fitness” beats “truth” every time (fitness being perceptions that support the ability to survive for long enough to pass along one’s genes, versus truth, or objective reality). He proposes that reality is formed by a network of conscious agents, and that consciousness may be the invisible ground out of which the material world emerges, rather than vice versa. So it doesn’t seem to be a leap too far to assume that the nature of that consciousness would have a powerful influence on its material manifestation.
So, to circle back to my hero Christiana Figueres, quoted above, and her story behind the success of the 2015 Paris climate change negotiations, maybe there is some truth in the dictum from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:
“As above, so below. As within, so without.”
(See also the Cherokee story of “which wolf are you feeding?“)
All in all, there is a growing body of evidence from both science and spirituality that our thoughts shape our reality. Even on the most pragmatic level, think back to those paragraphs at the start of this blog post, and reflect on how the negative thoughts impacted your energy levels compared with the positive thoughts. Even if you don’t buy into the notion that thoughts shape reality, actions certainly do, and you’re more likely to take positive action if you are feeling energetised rather than despairing.
So, whichever way you look at it, optimism can only be a good thing – not the bright-siding, wilfully blind kind of Pollyanna optimism that pretends that everything is just lovely in the garden, but the gritty, determined, roll-your-sleeves-up kind of optimism that gets stuff done.
Wishing you a wonderful week of positivity.