One thing that almost nobody knows about me is how much time I’ve spent on self-analysis of one sort or another. I’m deeply impressed by people who are more motivated and self-disciplined than I am, and I frequently try to get to the bottom of the many issues surrounding self-discipline.

Recently I’ve been toying with the notion that optimism is an important attitudinal key to high motivation. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is not optimism but positivity that matters. These are different. A rough gloss of “optimism” is “the habit of estimating the probability of future events turning out well.” By contrast, I’d say “positivity” means “the habit of evaluating one’s own achievements and situation, and those of other people, highly.” Obviously, this is a vague thing. But if you “look on the bright side,” you’re positive; if you’re depressive and regard your achievements as worthless and your situation as bleak, you’re negative.

So, yes, I’m thinking that Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking was right all along. This is also consistent with the fact that cognitive therapy (which is all about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones) is so helpful.

I know people who say they are depressed who nevertheless do work hard. I’m not saying that positivity is perfectly correlated with motivation (or hard work). But as I look back on my own life, at the times that I worked the hardest, I was always at the time quite proud of my work or progress, and more or less satisfied with my circumstances. Was that because I happened to be working harder or producing more at the time? Actually, no. There were other times in my life when I also happened to work hard and get stuff done, but I was dissatisfied with my progress. No–I think I was, at those times, simply focused on the positive. That suggests a hypothesis.

I’ll be 50 in a few weeks, and I have thought a great deal about this sort of thing, but I’m not sure I have ever entertained this precise hypothesis: When I am quite positive, i.e., when I dismiss self-criticism and instead take pride in my work (and my circumstances, i.e., “looking on the bright side” of whatever comes my way), then I do happen to be unusually well motivated and hard-working. Positivity causes high motivation. Dwelling on the bright side is a sufficient but not necessary condition for wanting to get stuff done.

It’s not optimism about the future that matters most to motivation. It’s positivity. Optimism means evaluating the probability of future desired events highly. But if you’re in a blue funk, then even if you think it’s very likely that you’ll achieve x if you set out to do x, you’ll be less likely to care about x, or be motivated by the prospect. But if you’re quite positive, if you dwell long and hard on how wonderful it will be to achieve x, and you generally look on the bright side regardless, that can be enough to overcome a sober estimate that your chances of success are relatively low.

So I’m going to try this out. There’s no great method to follow, however. What I’m describing here is an attitude, not an activity. If you’re persuaded by what I’ve written, and want to try it out with me, then it seems to me what you need to do is reflect on everything in your life–your job, your relationships, your material circumstances, everything–and remind yourself of all of the most positive aspects of it all. Then keep those aspects in mind, and going forward, as you encounter new circumstances and talk with folks, make an effort to dwell on the most positive aspects. If you get a B and you wanted an A, reflect that it’s not a C; that the course was difficult; that it is, after all, just one grade; etc. If you finish a piece of work you’re proud of and nobody else seems to notice, don’t let that stop you from taking pride in your work. And let your attitude come out. If you feel like saying to a coworker, “I really killed it,” referring to your job, they’ll probably support you if they’re decent.

I’m not saying you should be conceited or narcissistic. Don’t take other people down a peg just because you start getting more positive about yourself. I also think you should be positive with respect to other people, their qualities and their achievements. If someone says they finished something important, praise them. You might find someone’s politics annoying, but don’t let that stop you from liking or admiring him or her. Remind yourself that politics are just one not-very-important aspect of a person’s life, and that your friend is, after all, very accomplished in this or that way, or funny, or pretty, or whatever their positive traits might be. This will make it easier for you to be more genuinely positive about yourself.

Let me know what you think in the comments.