What the world is actually like and what we think the world is like, are two different things.
In the famous phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Our thoughts about reality constitute our perception of it. And it is to thisperception of the world that we react.
This raises a very interesting question: what is the goal of our perception?
Should it yield truth — represent the outside world correctly?
Or should it cause us to react in the best possible way?
These objectives often correspond: in many cases accurate perception equals optimal perception because such perception produces the right response. When being chased by a tiger, it would be a costly error to mistake that predator for Winnie the Pooh.
Now that such scenes are becoming rarer, in most everyday situations, having true thoughts about reality does not lead to optimal behavior.
Rather, we can improve the way we react to the outside world by purposefully changing what we think about it.
Your worldview is much less precise than you think it is. And that’s often a good thing. As psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown concludedthirty years ago:
“Positive illusions are highly prevalent in normal thought and predictive of criteria traditionally associated with mental health.”
Some imperfections in our thoughts about reality contribute to our mental health.
For example, we believe that:
- We are more competent than we actually are.
- We are nicer than we actually are.
- We have more control than we actually have.
- Desired events are more likely to occur than they actually are.
Such misperceptions improve our lives. It’s not a coincidence that the worldview of depressed people is more accurate than that of their ‘healthy’ counterparts.
In the case of these positive illusions, we do not deliberately steer our perception away from the truth, but our representation of the world contains unintentional flaws.
Often, however, it pays to consciously influence your thoughts about reality in order to make yourself behave one way or the other.
A quote from The Magic of Thinking Big (1959) by psychologist David Schwartz (1927–1989):
“Your memory is the basic supplier of raw material for your new thoughts. When you remember situations of any kind, concentrate on the good part of the experience; forget the bad. Bury it. Withdraw only positive thoughts from your memory bank.”
Schwartz recommends recalling only positive aspects in order to make sure that your view on things provides you with the largest possible boost.
I felt uncomfortable after reading this. Concealing negative dimensions of life feels like fooling myself — pretending as if the facts about this and that are such and such, while knowing that they are not.
Let’s take a closer look at this actually-I-know-better reply. It’s intuitive, but is it right? Do you ‘actually’ know better?
No, you do not.
‘Knowing better’ presupposes that you had a neutral representation of reality of which you knowingly deviated by selectively picking which thoughts to bury and which to keep alive.
In fact, things are more nuanced, because you did not have a neutral representation of reality in the first place. As writer Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) tells us:
“We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
There is no ‘actually’ — no objective, neutral perception of the world that you knowingly push aside to believe in a ‘lie’. Deliberately influencing your way of thinking about reality does not entail believing in a fake confabulation because you never perceived the world from an objective point of view to begin with.
Rather, you merely switch from one partial perspective to the another partial perspective.
We can only perceive the world from a certain perspective: human perception is never ‘from nowhere’.
By consciously influencing our thoughts, we do not shift from some objective perception to a ‘lie’, but simply from one way of looking at things to another way of seeing them.
Persons, things and events do not enter your consciousness in unmediated fashion. Rather, your attitude fundamentally determines how reality appears to you. Or, as Wayne Dyer (1940–2015) put it:
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
If our mindset determines our reality, we’d better ensure that our way of ‘viewing’ yields maximal advantages.
Reality doesn’t cause our behavior, but our thoughts about reality do.
As such, thoughts about reality do not aim at truth; correctness is not at issue, because their purpose is not being true but giving rise to optimal behavior.
Moreover, since we do not respond to the outside world but to our perception of it, we have the ability to choose our thoughts about reality to ensure that we behave as we’d like ourselves to behave.
Therefore, it pays off to shape our perception of reality with an eye to upgrading our life.
- If you think that others can do a lot, they perform better.
- If you think you are a capable person, you achieve more.
- If you think people are interesting, life is more entertaining.
- If you create grateful thoughts, you are happier.
- If you create positive thoughts, you reduce your stress levels.
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