The Power Of Positive Thinking

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - January 21, 2009
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“Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?”-Barack Hussein Obama, Nov. 3, 2008.

It was the last speech he would make as a candidate, his final public words to a country itching to make a change. And we did. History will look back on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009, as the day a young, skinny, black man with a funny name was sworn in as president of the United States.

President Obama (sounds good, doesn’t it?) has already begun the tough job of transforming a nation that has fallen into, shall we say, a certain mindset. We have learned over the last few decades to be angry. Not just angry, but outraged - “How dare they?!” We have been conditioned to reject as false the words and deeds of “the other side.” It has become our habitual response to disparage and dig in, and those habits have jelled. There is no middle ground, we are told, either you are with us or you are a traitor to your country/race/gender/religion - whatever happens to be the source of the day’s outrage.


It’s a tricky situation. Can you really motivate millions of people to do the right thing by appealing to a long-dormant spirit of cooperation? Is it possible to move mountains without relying on the power of negative passions? It’s not that hard to get people to hate something or to work against a person, an idea or a position. Outrage, after all, is easy. It’s fun. It gets your blood pumping and helps you bond with others who share your ire.

It is by far the harder job to effect change by arousing positive passions and channeling those constructive feelings into action. Those who talk about it or have tried it have been called soft, Pollyanna-ish. Idealism has somehow become a character weakness. We are embarrassed by what some derisively call the “kumbaya” moments of shared emotion, preferring to look smart and edgy by being hard, cynical and “realistic.”

It’s time for a power shift. It’s time for optimists to throw off their shame and come out of the closet. There are researchers who are telling us that outrage may be strong, but it isn’t the most powerful or effective emotion in our arsenal.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the Greater Good Science Center. He’s coming out with a book in a few days titled Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In it he lays out his argument that people are “not hard-wired to lead lives that are nasty, brutish and short - we are in fact born to be good.”

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, describes an emotion called “elevation” - something millions of us experienced together as we watched Barack Obama accept the nomination for president. In an article for the American Psychological Association, Haidt writes about the difference between happiness and elevation: “Elevated participants were more likely to report physical feelings in their chests, especially warm, pleasant or ‘tingling’ feelings, and they were more likely to report wanting to help others, to become better people themselves, and to affiliate with others. In both studies happiness energized people to engage in private or self-interested pursuits, while elevation seemed to open people up and turn their attention outwards, towards other people.”

Haidt, in another interview, says, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

It is in this sense of hope, love and optimism that our new president and we come together. The honeymoon won’t last, but I’m hoping that by the time it fades we’ll have grown used to a new way of solving our problems.

Obama gave many great speeches during the campaign, but it is his core belief in the goodness of humanity that speaks to us all. In his “fired up” speech, he summed up the notion that we all have this power - we just have to tap into it and believe in it:

“One voice can change a road. And if a voice can change a road, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world.”

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