Dec 24, 2011


Positive vs. Negative

It was a matter of discussion with one of the members of Vedanta society, Toronto, on the influence of negative and positive thoughts on our minds, which prompted me to write on this abstract topic. It is a well known fact that positive thinking forces us to act positively, but even after knowing this fact  people get attracted towards negative thoughts more than the positive ones. For example, people become jealous and envious after seeing somebody’s success, progress or happiness which then gives rise to negative feelings. People also become jealous if somebody is more educated or knowledgeable or spiritually advanced. Therefore the question arises, is negative thought always bad for us and as such, should it have any place in our mental faculties? Why are people so abrasive with the thought of negative feelings? Do negative feelings have any positive role in our lives? If so, then how and what should be the demarcation line for both the feelings to co-exist for the betterment of our personality?  In order to avoid repetition of thoughts already expressed by scholars, sages and seers, I have tried to take a holistic approach on the topic mixed with logic and the latest discoveries in neurological science and the human brain.
The human mind is attracted towards anything which gives it mental, physical, emotional or worldly pleasures. In order to obtain these pleasures, how we perceive our thoughts depends on the outcome of our rational or sometimes, irrational thinking which may be logical and or temperamental in nature. Since negative or positive thinking and the resulting pleasures are mostly sensual and gives us happiness and a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, then in a true sense, it has to be good or positive. The means to achieve those thoughts which may be bad for others may be negative, but as the outcome gives us the mental pleasure, we cannot overtly categorize them as bad. It is inadvertent that we not only get pleasures by thinking good about ourselves only, but we also get pleasure in thinking bad about other people. Sometimes negative feelings crop up inside our mind due to failure or dissatisfaction towards a thing or a situation which is a very obvious and inseparable part of the entire gambit of the process of thinking. Therefore, the way we think negatively or positively, needs to be investigated before arriving at a conclusion.

The thoughts of worldly pleasure can have negative or positive aspects or there may be a situation where enjoyment of such pleasures may result in stabilization or destabilization of our mental equilibrium. Religious books and books of higher knowledge have given us the dictum that any pleasure which is against the law of nature or immoral in character is bad or negative.  But they have failed to mention that negative thoughts act like a springboard which prepares the foundation for positive thinking. Without the mental ground work one cannot build the castle of hope, aspiration, trust, confidence, self assurance, optimism, desire, ambition etc. In other words, without negative thinking there is no existence of positive thinking. It is an inseparable part of the same coin.

The characterization of good or bad, positive or negative thinking also depends upon the stages of our lives as they transform from one stage to another. It means that our level of thinking does not remain the same and it goes through the process of metamorphosis as we mature. The variation of our thought also depends upon our mood and circumstances; as such they cannot be accepted as good or rejected as bad.

Therefore the question arises; do these mood swings undermine our capacity to think positively and if yes, then how to distinguish between these negative and positive thoughts in our daily lives, or how do we bookmark these thoughts for corrective actions? And why do negative pleasures or negative thoughts attract us more than positive ones? Those who are advanced practitioners of spiritualism may claim to have the ability to overcome negative thinking may sound hypocritical as it is difficult to distinguish the characteristics of positive thought in the absence of negative  the way it is difficult to understand the nature of light in the absence of darkness. It is the mood swing which influences cyclical changes in our thinking of happiness or positivity and sadness or negativity which depends upon various natural phenomena occurring around us.

In order to illustrate metamorphic changes in our thought process, we can see it evolve as we mature.  For example, a toy may be the world of a child as long as he or she has the toy, but his or her world will be gone in the absence of it. Similarly, an adolescent has different perceptions that create his or her own world. As time changes, their priority changes and the definition of pleasure or happiness also changes, this may look ludicrous from the angle of an old person, for whom these pleasures may now be irrelevant. Therefore the values of thought which has a positive impact on one’s life at one point of time will seem to have a negative influence. The understanding of the meaning of pleasure has changed with the change in time but the attributes of the feeling of pleasure has remained the same. The pleasures of life are a constant and only the means to enjoy those changes with time.

Hence we see that the outcry of negative feeling is not always bad. Sometimes negative feelings make us cautious in our approach. After getting the feel of a burn, one becomes cautious of fire, which is the result of negative feeling towards it. Nobody feels positive while going through suffering or pain. It is the after-effect of an event which forces one to think positively in order to regain lost confidence and belief. We learn lessons in our lives after going through suffering, and these lessons are the inseparable part of negative feelings which cannot be explicitly admonished. Sometimes, lessons learned from bad experiences and the resulting negative thoughts provide us with an opportunity to analyze and formulate resolutions to be careful next time and continue moving forward with positive approach. In other words, negative thought ignites the process of positive approach in life.

Now with all said and done logically, what does our modern neurology say in this regard? How does our brain work mechanically in these situations and what type of chemicals is involved in developing positive or negative thoughts? If we can identify them, then can we control their activities in our brains to make our lives more peaceful and stable?

Scientifically it is difficult to prove what triggers our brain to think in a peculiar way. Modern science is still primitive in research as far as the human brain is concerned. So far we know that the process of thinking depends upon our emotion which is controlled by chemicals present in the limbic system which is a complex set of structures that lies on both sides of the thalamus. It has four main structures: the amygdala, the hippocampus, regions of the limbic cortex and the septal area. The hippocampus is important in memory and learning, while the limbic system is central in the control of emotional response. Thalamus or Hypothalamus gland is situated in the left side of our brain on top of cerebellum and connected with pituitary gland and other endocrine systems.

Having described the vital parts of the brain, it would be pertinent to understand how they work in tandem to create positive or negative impulses. It is the billions of neuron or neurotic cells which contain the secret of the brain and release chemicals like Serotonin and Dopamine which transmit brain signals from one neuron to another neuron. Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter and helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another and any imbalance in this neurotransmitter level may influence the mood in a way that may lead to depression. Positive thinking and behaviours encourages the release of serotonin, dopamine and all other ‘feel good’ chemicals and alternatively negative thinking or behaviours, will inhibit the production of those chemicals and instead will release Cortisol that rises during stress. Therefore, a mere smile or sadness will trigger or inhibit the release of these chemicals.

Dopamine being a neurotransmitter makes people more talkative and excitable. The major behaviours dopamine affects are movement, cognition, pleasure, and motivation.  In other words, it affects brain processes that control movement, emotional responses, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. If any of these biochemical glitches occur, the researcher believes it can lead to depression, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, panic and even excessive anger. In certain areas of the brain when dopamine is released, it gives one the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. These feelings of satisfaction become desired, and the person grows a desire for satisfaction. To satisfy that desire the person will repeat behaviours that cause the release of dopamine. For example food and sex release dopamine. That is why people want food even though their body does not need it.

To sum up, we must understand that every thought matters in shaping our lives for good or bad. Positive thinking helps us in shaping our future actions with confidence and conviction whereas the occasional dose of negative thinking may make us cautious of events which may become hurdles in moving ahead positively. It is up to us to weigh which thought process is more helpful in achieving results while remaining calm and happy. If we do not know how to balance the mix of positive and negative thoughts in daily life then we are going to hurt ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. For those who do not know how to balance them, it can be suggested that spiritualism and yogic practices like asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing practice) and meditation may help them in controlling the flow of Serotonin and Dopamine in the brain.

I would look forward for your valuable comments and wish you all Happy Holidays.

Suman Saran Sinha