Thoughts & Musings

Positive thinking: How do we know good is good and bad is bad?

Positive thinking I’ve been practising my own version of a positive thinking philosophy for a few years now. It’s not based on anything I’ve read, it’s just something I developed as I’ve recognised that many of the events I think are bad for me actually turn out to be good. The same thing happens to everyone else too. It took a couple of years for it to become second nature to me, but now that it is I’m even more chilled than I naturally was anyway. I don’t tend to get upset about most of the negative things that happen and realise that time may well uncover something very positive in them.

We tend to spend our lives trying to manipulate circumstances to our perceived benefit. When things happen as we want them to we are happy, but when they don’t, we are usually unhappy. However, we are always hopelessly incapable of knowing whether any event we interpret as good will remain good for us and not ultimately turn out to be a bad thing, and we can never know if the bad that is currently happening to us will not eventually turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened – and something we would never change. This article is not about dismissing seriously bad events though.

So knowing whether events will turn out to be good or bad for us is such an inexact science that it’s totally pointless getting too upset about most negative events. I just try to do the best I can and if things don’t work out I know that many of them will develop or lead onto something so good that I end up being glad it happened that way. This is nothing to do with a belief in fate – it’s not preordained, nor do I believe in “everything happens for a reason”. It’s simply that things work out in random unexpected ways, and they often lead us on paths we never expected. Many good things come only because something bad or unwanted happened in the past. Conversely, many bad things happen because something good happened in the past.

General Examples:

  • Think how many people were gutted not to get a ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic. All the people who managed to get tickets had no clue that this great thing that just happened would turn to tragedy
  • Over 200 people applied to be the first civilian in space on the American Space Shuttle Challenger, which blew up on take-off in 1986. Every one of the applicants that missed out was probably seriously disappointed. You ask them now how glad they are they didn’t make it
  • I remember seeing an interview with the American, Wayne Bobbitt. The man who had his penis cut off by his wife. It’s hard to imagine that as being a good thing, but years later he is quoted as saying it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He is now very rich and famous. A porn star in fact, who has women queuing up for him
  • I once read a newspaper story about a man knocked down and hospitalised. Whilst operating on him, the surgeons discovered a malignant tumour and removed it saving his life

That’s just a few examples off the top of my head, but history is littered with such examples, and so are the daily news papers. Some of them may be extreme examples but that’s the point, even some of the most extreme things that can happen sometimes turn out for the best in the end.

It may feel if you fail to get that job you so desperately wanted that a bad thing that has just happened. But how many people make the connection months or even years later, when they are settled into a different job and extremely happy, that they are only in the current situation because they didn’t get that other job? How many people who meet and fall in love with their partner at work make the connection that without the disappointment of the other lost jobs, they would never have met?

It’s possible to sit back and think of almost any good thing in my life and trace it back to something negative that happened.

Personal Examples:

  • The reason I work for myself and run my own business is because I was sacked from my job for having an accident with the firms van one too many times. When I had the last accident I would have done anything to turn the clock back, but now I’m glad it happened because it directly led to me starting to work for myself, which I had never thought of before
  • My son is only, “my son” and the person he is because of a previous miscarriage. At the time of the miscarriage my wife was obviously devastated, but if it hadn’t happened, we would not now have our Martin. We would have another, totally different child instead, and because we love the one we’ve got, we would not now – even if we could – prevent the previous miscarriage. We are happy the way things have worked out
  • I myself am only on this earth because my father’s first wife and son died tragically. As a result, he later remarried and I was his first child. I know bereavement is a dangerous area to venture in with this topic. I don’t wish to undermine anything about this tragic subject or even remotely imply that if bereaved one should treat it lightly at all. It just happens to be an extreme example of positive things that came from something tragic which is an undeniable fact of life

I can even see examples from my friend’s lives –

  • Two of my mates have split up from their wives. One was devastated when she cheated on him. Within a year he was with another partner, buying a house together and very happy. I asked him if he would change what had happened and he said, “no way” – yet he was devastated at the time
  • My other mate’s split was tough as he had two small kids. He is now living in his own flat, has his own business and a girlfriend. He wouldn’t change a thing either and is very happy

These unexpected turnarounds are not anomalies. Admittedly they don’t always happen that way either, but they do occur far more frequently than we usually realise. Examples of this are so ubiquitous that we often don’t even notice them.

Bread always lands butter side down?

It’s the same principle at work here as how we become convinced that whenever we drop buttered bread, it always lands butter side down on the floor, and whenever we choose the smallest queue in the bank or supermarket, we always end up watching the longer queue go down quicker. Research once showed that dropped buttered bread landed about equally either butter-face-down or face-up, and that queues didn’t follow logic and went down randomly, regardless of length. It was pure chance whether the longer or shorter one was the best to join.

What was proposed as an explanation, was that we have a natural tendency to remember each time the negative outcome prevails more than the positive because it has a greater impact on us. I believe the same thing happens with positive and negative events in our lives.

Now, in my life, I try to reserve judgement before deciding something is definitely bad. The logic of this means that I don’t worry half as much because I usually think that, for all I know, this could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. If I go to the cinema and the film is sold out, instead of being upset at the film I’ve just missed, I think that maybe the other film I end up choosing, one I didn’t particularly want to see, will turn out to be fantastic. To be able to brush off many of the bad things with a philosophical, “I wonder if this will turn out to my advantage?” has revolutionised my ability to be positive and frees me from a lot of unnecessary stress.

It does work well for the more trivial ups and downs of life but takes commitment to apply it to more apparently serious events like the ones I have quoted. But by learning to see the connections from past events, and opening our eyes to the ever-present examples of how other people experience good-from-bad (in the papers, books and films) it can be a powerful calming force.

I can see the less serious, day-to-day negatives as possible positives. And even for some of the more serious negatives, I now have a little ray of hope that they may ultimately come to be events I wouldn’t change for anything.

Take any event from your life that you are very happy about, and carefully trace it back through all the other events that were necessary to make it possible. It won’t be long before you see some bad things that were necessary to get you there – how many would you change if you could?

These old Chinese Folk Stories perfectly describe what I’m talking about

Chinese Farmer

There is a Chinese story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, it escaped into the hills and his neighbours sympathised to him about how unfortunate it was for him. The farmer simply replied, “Maybe”. A few days later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbours congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Maybe”.

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. But the farmer’s only reaction was, “Maybe”.

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there to war. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they left him at home with his father. Many of the other young men in the village were conscripted and died in the war.

Chinese history

A pre-revolution rich man gambles away his fortune and leaves his family homeless, but then the revolution happens and rich people are attacked and persecuted. The man who won his fortune is publicly executed but he and his family are left unharmed.


I am not saying that we should be glad when bad things happen or there’s no point pursuing good things – that would be stupid. Nor am I saying that all bad things are good things in disguise. I’m definitely not saying we should belittle really bad things that happen either, some things are just bad – full stop – and some bad things will always hurt. I’m just saying that a hell of a lot more of the bad things turn out to be good for us than we would naturally believe – particularly things that in the great scheme of things are relatively minor, but which often have a disproportionately negative effect on us. It’s just that most of the time when they do turn out for the better it goes totally unnoticed, so we can easily spend our lives oblivious to the fact that lots of them aren’t worth getting stressed about. Yet when “bad” things stay bad or good things turn out bad we never forget. We need to balance things up more by recognising how many things we don’t want to happen actually make us better off in the end.

3 replies on “Positive thinking: How do we know good is good and bad is bad?”

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