The recent NTimes article by Oliver Burkeman http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/opinion/sunday/the-positive-power-of-negative-thinking.html offers an interesting response to the rush to embrace unquestioning optimism and positive thinking that permeates pop psychology and New Age spirituality. Now I have personally promoted the optimistic approach to life–but with a robust degree of moderation and balance.
There is no question that optimistic individuals are happier than pessimists. They live longer, have more friends, have stronger more potent immune systems. Research in the field of Positive Psychology also have helped define who the optimist is. There is perhaps a genetic contribution of nearly 50 % to one's basic outlook on life. Life experiences contribute to the other 25% and there is at least that much left which becomes our choice. So optimism can be learned and acquired.
But there is also a danger in too much optimism, in blind optimism–the kind that ignores danger and the reality of negative outcomes. The article describes some of Tony Robbins' followers who burnt their feet walking across hot coals. While a light quick walk on hot coals will probably burn no one, those true believers who did get burnt blamed themselves for not being positive enough.
Some of us underestimate our own potential. For a variety of reasons including early life negative experiences or lack of parental support, we have developed a life script which tells us that we cannot achieve lofty goals. That element of negativity will prevent us from reaching our highest potential. On the other hand, blind unrealistic expectations which have no hope of being realized is a recipe for repeated failure.
I have previously criticized the strong advocates of "The Secret" who believed that deeply wishing and visualizing an outcome would bring it into existence. I used the Kabbalistic analogy of different worlds. In the universe of pure thought (yetzirah), the desired outcome immediately comes into being. Unfortunately, we all live in the world of action (assiyah) and are compelled to live by its rules. While creating goals are important and visualizing positive outcomes necessary, the hard work of making them come into existence cannot be bypassed.
Also, for many, the fear of failure can be tremendously motivating. Worrying may alert us to potential dangers and prepare us to avoid them. Being aware of possible failure allows us to pick ourselves up when it happens and not be devastated to the point of paralysis. That does not mean being trapped or weighed down by fear, but using this "negative" energy to seek a positive outcome.
Once again the magic ingredient is balance and continuous feedback. Observe your own thoughts and feelings. Be a realist about possibilities. Positive expectations are great but if we are not realistic about our plans we will be continuously disappointed. And constant failure is difficult to overcome, even for the most committed optimist.
Be the witness of what goes on in your mind. This is the Buddhist approach via meditation or bare awareness.
You will understand the power of the mind to motivate, empower or to impair success. Being aware will allow you to use the power of negative thought in balance with an underlying optimistic attitude and achieve as much in life as is reasonable based on hard work and talent. It will also assure a degree of equanimity and serenity which is everyone's ultimate goal.