When we are told to have a positive attitude, we often consider it either a wishy-washy platitude or an apathetic dismissal. While it is true that such an admonition is used in both of these ways, I would like to submit that there is more substance in a positive attitude than what these common uses would indicate. What is it that makes a positive attitude more than just a nice thought or saccharine shtick?
Firstly, our attitude colors our outlook on everything. It is a psychological lens through which information passes as it is formed into our perceptions. As such, it can sharpen or distort our perceptions, either allowing them to be more accurate or skewing them (sometimes drastically) away from reality. Our attitude is the difference between taking a passing comment as a passing comment and taking it as an insult; the difference between having an open or closed mind. It is also key to the phenomenon known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Our attitude affects how we treat people, which, in turn, affects how they treat us.
Second, our attitude makes a very real impact on the people around us. As noted in the self-fulfilling prophecy example above, our attitude really is contagious. It can be what helps someone else to, themselves, have a positive attitude which goes on to affect the people they come into contact with and who we may never see. In this way, our attitude has a subtle effect on actions and interactions beyond our little sphere. This wide-ranging influence is why the kind of attitude we have is a very important decision.
Third, in addition to having an effect on our perceptions and on others, our attitudes have an effect on our own lives and how we live them. Paul touches on this idea in his letter to the Philippians:
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul says that he is content no matter his circumstance. This speaks to his attitude not as a passing feeling, but as a persistent disposition. It is interesting to note the ideas Paul uses to convey his point. He says that he has learned “how to” be abased, abound, etc. This suggests that there is a better and worse way to undergo these things. To bring this into better focus, consider the more mundane example of having a cold. There seem to be two general categories into which people fall when dealing with this kind of disturbance. One group accepts the cold for what it is and proceeds forward with life in anticipation that the annoyingly runny nose will eventually go away with the aid of proper care and rest. The other group allows the discomfort and disturbance of the cold to take over their lives and dominate their attitude, inflicting undue strain and stress not only on themselves, but also on those around them. Chances are that we’ve encountered both of these approaches to the problem of being sick. In this case, it is clear that the first is a better way of addressing our cold and the second worse. They do not change the fact that a cold is a bad thing to deal with. Rather they speak to our disposition in a bad circumstance. We can apply the same reasoning to a good circumstance; noting that we can have better and worse mindsets as we move through it. This is the line of reasoning that Paul sets out as he addresses the Philippian Christians: he has learned how to have a positive attitude in both good and bad circumstances.
As we unpack this further, we come to the foundation upon which Paul grounds his attitude. He says that he can “do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul’s positive mindset is not based on his force of will when particular circumstances arise. He’s not forcing himself to be happy or humble. Instead, his mindset stems from a larger perspective in which circumstance forms a transient part. This perspective is cultivated as we grow in our relationship with God and learn to live our lives with Him. God, rather than being forgotten or relegated to a particular corner of our lives, is allowed to be a part of all that we say, think, and do. We allow Him to provide comfort, to provide guidance, or to provide insight in the innumerable situations we find ourselves in. Rather than being an escapist mentality, living our lives with God helps us to engage the people and situations around us in a healthy and constructive way. Paul does not say that his positive attitude is based on ignoring his problems. Instead, he says that he relies on Christ, who casts a light on the situation and helps him to proceed well. Above all else, Paul (and we as Christians) has an unquenchable hope in the new life we have in Christ which surpasses anything that this world or Hell itself can throw at us. It is this hope that strengthens us against the despair and cynicism inherent in having a bad attitude.
Although we often take having a positive attitude as a fluffy platitude anymore, I hope that the writing above has shown or at least helped you consider the idea that a positive attitude is something with substance that is worth taking the trouble to maintain. It would be foolish to claim that it is easy to keep a positive attitude, especially when we are surrounded by a world bursting at the seams with negativity. Nonetheless there is real value in this endeavor, for our attitude affects our perceptions and interactions with others as well as how we address ourselves to all manner of situations. We make a difference in the world every day, whether we like it or not. What kind of difference we make is very often the product of the attitude we have in life.