Cognitive Optimism Versus Zen Wisdom

A Buddhist answer to cognitive persuasion and control

June 1, 2013 by Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D. in A Unified Theory of Happiness, Psychology Today

Do you want to sit next to a grouch who never ever thinks that things will work themselves out just fine? Or do you want to sit next to a Pollyannaish type of person who never ever thinks that anything could go wrong? Silly questions, I know. How many people fit or even want to fit neatly into the two extreme categories of “pessimist” and “optimist?” In reality, unless plagued with a mood disorder, our evaluation of the future depends largely on the situation. Yet, there is this psycho-spiritual pressure in the air of having to be positive, jovial, and enthusiastic all the time. I mean, even my dentist asked me the other day if I felt excited about getting a retainer. “What?” I said, “You must be kidding.” He just chuckled. He knew he was trying to manipulate me into feeling something I was not. But he could not help himself. He just had to give this ugly object that was going to bother me for the rest of my life a positive spin. The Zeitgeist said so.

I am with skeptic Michael Shermer who refers to this Zeitgeist -- in part created by Positive psychology -- as Kool-Aid Psychology ( In his opinion, the artificially created positive mentality has contributed to the housing and banking crisis. Everybody involved seemed to have thrown caution – and ultimately bushels of money -- out of the window. Usually well-balanced people were part of a groupthink: “I believe, and therefore it will be.” It was a crazy time. I recall clearly how people called me plain “stupid” for not mortgaging out my house or flipping properties.

This was surely not what Martin Seligman intended when he researched optimism and promoted it as the superior way of life. He meant to help notoriously negative people and, I am sure, he often succeeded. Seligman himself is a “dyed-in-the-wool pessimist,”* using the very ABCDE steps he teaches depressed individuals. After recognizing the negative belief (B) following an adverse moment (A), a person is to analyze the negative consequence of that believe (C), dispute it (D), and notice how a more positive belief feels energizing (E).** It is a cognitive approach, based on the assumption that feelings are created by thoughts and can only be altered by more and better thoughts.

I am all for helping people become more aware of their negativity. Promoting happiness, teaching steps of how to overcome obstacles and to see “the light” is clearly my thing.*** However, here is where I, a Zen psychologist, differ from a Cognitive psychologist. Firstly, I do not believe that happiness is synonymous with or dependent on positive feelings. Instead happiness to me is having a good relationship with the whole of life, with the light and the darkness, the good and the bad, the concrete and the indefinable. How could there be lasting happiness if we exclude a part of life that is real and that serves a purpose. This understanding should inoculate everybody against the pressure of having to feel optimistic all the time.

Secondly, there is no evidence that our thoughts are at the top of a hierarchy inside the brain. We are quite capable of producing feelings without thoughts as the latest research on consciousness has demonstrated ( Surely we can influence the way we feel with thought. Surely we should correct our thinking when it is faulty. But if we have to do it over and over without making real progress, if we start to ignore the reality of our feelings and bodies and our overall situation, or if we become anxious as a result of assuming too much control, the Cognitive approach may not suffice.

Instead of trying to persuade ourselves to thinking positive, the Zen approach is to ask ourselves, “Who is it that needs persuasion?” The idea is to question the way we experience ourselves and others before we even look at the particular negative thought or event. Zen questioning is there to find perspective. Usually we suffer unnecessarily because our perspective is very, very limited, namely the perspective of being a separate person. Our brain produces the illusion of separateness because it wishes to control the concrete world. While this is a fantastic survival strategy, it disconnects us from our community and from the expansive feeling of being related to everybody and everything. Once we get a sense of who we truly are, namely this being connected to the greater Being, we look at the particular, small experience with wisdom. We don’t have to take it so seriously anymore. Just looking at our inner experience from the perspective of Being causes us to relax and smile.

Zen wisdom also means that we need not to fix ourselves all the time. While observing the flow of our inner experiences patiently from the perspective of Being, we may see no need to intervene. There actually is no reason to control our every thought to become positive. The flow of inner experiences is unstoppable, if we let it. Ironically this means that hence forth life will present itself to us more positively. We learn to trust that “this too shall pass” because that’s what life is all about: it changes all the time. Zen wisdom causes us to relax, observe, let the show of life begin, and enjoy. Quite naturally so.

*Martin Seligman (2002). Authentic Happiness. Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, (p. 24).

** Ibid., p.93


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