Experts praise power of positive thinking

Isaac Newton: He said the time he spent avoiding plague was “the prime of my age of invention”.

Can positive thinking help? The coronavirus epidemic is an enormous challenge for the whole world – but many people are saying we should focus on the rich benefits it might bring us.

For Isaac Newton, August 1665 was a hugely frustrating time. The year before, he had been awarded a scholarship which guaranteed him four years at Cambridge to pursue his studies. But that month, the university was shut down because of the Great Plague. Newton had to return home to Lincolnshire to continue his research alone – and came up with his theories of calculus and the law of gravity.

People who believe in the power of positive thought see this is a prime example of how good things can come out of a crisis. If you approach any situation in the right frame of mind, they argue, you can overcome your problems. So, instead of complaining about all the restrictions of being isolated due to the coronavirus, we should see it as an opportunity to enrich our lives.

One thing we generally lack in the modern world is time. In the months ahead, we will have plenty of it. You could use it to acquire a new skill, such as making furniture, or learning to draw properly, sew, or play a musical instrument – Charles Darwin said that if he had his life to live over again, he would have found more time for music and poetry.

While team sports are suspended, you might discover other physical activities you can still do in the open air: gardening, for instance – described by the philosopher Francis Bacon as “the purest of human pleasures”, or going for walks. William Wordsworth found walking so helpful to his thought processes that he composed some of his greatest poetry on foot, and is estimated to have covered 175,000 miles in his lifetime. Indoors, you could learn to do yoga or Pilates.

Even if you are cut off from your friends, you could have conversations with them on the phone or via Skype, and discuss things in greater depth than you would by just texting. You might also find enjoyable new ways of socialising with your own family, such as cooking together. As Oscar Wilde observed, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody – even one’s own relations.”

And, of course, you can always sharpen your mind by reading a challenging book or playing chess – or trying to come up with a new law of physics.

Can positive thinking help?

Mind over matter

Some say that positive thinking is just a form of childish escapism: the world is full of people who believed that they were going to achieve great things, but never did. Simply expecting a situation to get better will make no difference to anything. It may even be dangerous, encouraging people to focus on changing their mindset instead of taking action to sort things out.

Others argue that positive thinking expands the mind and helps it find solutions to apparently impossible situations. The bestselling novelist Paolo Coelho remarked, “If you really think small, your world will be small. If you think big, your world will be big.” Mahatma Gandhi believed, “A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.”

You Decide

  1. Would you rather have a team captain who always expected the best, or one who always expected the worst?
  2. Does happiness depend on your circumstances, or on your attitude to life?

Activities

  1. Isaac Newton’s coat of arms was a pair of crossed bones. Draw a coat of arms for yourself, showing five things that sum up your life. Then write a sentence on each object, explaining why you have chosen it.
  2. In pairs, take turns in holding an imaginary telephone conversation, with one person saying why isolation is good and the other saying why it is bad. At the end, hold a vote on which pair has had the best dialogue.

Some People Say...

“Music is [...] a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), German composer and pianist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many people, including Holocaust survivors, emphasise the importance of a positive attitude in getting through difficult times. On the other hand, there are plenty of situations in which it clearly is not enough. The band on the Titanic kept playing to lift people’s spirits as the ship sank, but could do nothing to save it. A magazine called Positive Thinking, launched in 2005, failed to attract a large circulation and had to close down.
What do we not know?
How much difference a positive attitude will make in the present pandemic. Being too optimistic could lead people to take risks by going out and about earlier than is advisable. But it may be better than a negative attitude, which has led to panic buying in supermarkets and made life more difficult for everybody.

Word Watch

Calculus
A branch of mathematics devoted to rates of change.
Charles Darwin
An English biologist (1809-1882) famous for developing the theory of evolution.
Francis Bacon
An English philosopher, writer, scientist, lawyer, and politician (1561-1626).
William Wordsworth
An English writer (1770-1850) best known for his poems about nature, such as Daffodils.
Pilates
A form of exercise developed by a German physical fitness expert, Joseph Pilates (1883-1967).
Oscar Wilde
An Irish writer famous for his witty remarks and plays, such as The Importance of Being Earnest.
Paolo Coelho
A Brazilian writer whose most celebrated book is The Alchemist.
Mahatma Gandhi
An Indian political activist and lawyer (1869-1948), who emphasised passive resistance.

Subjects

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