Bertrand Russell once told a story about a chicken.
Every morning of the chicken’s life, the farmer came, bearing a bucket of grain. So, the chicken learned that the sound of the farmer’s footsteps meant breakfast. Every morning, when she heard the farmer’s footsteps, she came running.
But one day, the farmer brought an axe instead of a bucket of grain. His footsteps meant death.
What brought this to mind? I have a dear friend who is as aware of environmental and political issues as I am, but, as she says, keeps cheerful by focusing on the positive. This is actually a research-supported positive psychology technique that works well. Here is what I wrote about it in my new book, From Depression to Contentment:
Focus on the positives
A little bird went flying by.
As I wiped it from my eye,
I said, “Thank heavens cows don’t fly.”
When describing the ABC diary, I’d said, “Attention is a searchlight. Whatever it shines on stands out, while everything else recedes into background. Attention is also a fertilizer. Whatever you apply it to grows, while everything you withdraw it from withers away.” Research shows that forming the habit of focusing on positives (the silver lining on the cloud) improves resilience, makes you into a more effective problem solver, and lifts your mood.
Again, though, we need to go with the golden middle. This is not a Pollyanna denial of bad things, but of coping with them by focusing on possible solutions, on ways of coping. (The bird DID plop in the poet’s eye.)
My friend and I were talking about mutual acquaintances choosing to have babies, in today’s world. I said, “If I were young today, I’d choose to be childfree. It’s a crime to bring a lovely new person into guaranteed disaster, and every new human worsens the problem.”
She laughed at me. “There have been predictions of disaster through the ages. Time and again people predicted the end, and were wrong. Each time, there were those who decided not to have children.”
True. Those predictions were because the year 1000 was expected to be the Second Coming, or because a supposed prophet gained fame by predicting the end… belief. Now, it’s hard science.
And, as Bertrand Russell said, the past is not an infallible guide to the future. One day, the farmer brought the axe, not the bucket of grain.
It’s fine to focus on the positives, but action should depend on the total situation. If I were a young person today, I’d choose to be childfree.