Think happy (critical) thoughts!!
September 17, 2017 6:32 AM   Subscribe

How do I become an optimistic critical thinker?

I want to be one of those happy people who have beautiful relaxing, HAPPY thoughts. However, I love skeptical, critical thinking! Does anyone have exercises/examples of balancing these two styles of thinking? Thank you!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow to Human Relations (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The way I do it is by cultivating an attitude of excitement around learning new things. That excitement feeds a very optimistic and yet also pragmatic way of engaging with the world that, in particular, I can use to drive critical explorations and inquiries.

A kind and clear eyed approach to those questions will also make you engage with people in an open and non belligerent way that can invite them into the same explorations without getting defensive or their backs up.

Finding a flaw in an argument or theory or a weak spot in a system: These are all opportunities to get closer to truth in a sort of philosophical way, and its satisfying to get into the habit of training a curious mentality that makes a lot of space for awesome stuff to happen and clears the way for more and better ideas to take root in the space where something incorrect use to be.
posted by spindrifter at 7:06 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I strongly recommend the books of Raymond Smullyan, who was a master at doing exactly this. Try What is the Name of This Book?, followed by This Book Needs No Title.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 7:21 AM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Like you, I love skeptical and critical thinking. But I also spend most of my time in a very loving, diverse and super-lefty hippiesh community. It's full of people who focus on relaxing happy thoughts. I've seen people come into the community and become angry or belligerent that there are people who choose to see beauty in the world or dare to believe in things like reiki.

Two things come to mind:
- I see many people use snark as a substitute for critical thinking and I find it a very toxic behaviour. There's a difference between talking about research into disproving a certain subject and mocking a person.
- I find balance in remembering everyone has a different and unique perspective. I can't possibly know their life story or what past events influenced their beliefs. I also try to keep in mind if it's more important for me to be right and eg call all mediums scammers or to be compassionate to the specific person who calls themselves a medium. Maybe they chose that path because they're extremely adept at giving good, helpful advice and by labelling themselves a medium they're suddenly given the opportunity to be heard, or perhaps they feel more comfortable speaking up after a lifetime of being silenced.

The world has a lot of ugliness in it, but also so much beauty. It's ok to be curious and explore, and allow yourself to feel awestruck by your discoveries.
posted by A hidden well at 7:29 AM on September 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Have you tried being skeptical of your own skepticism? Like, if you hear an idea and you're like "ehhh I don't know if that would work, what about x y and z issues..." maybe ask yourself: why am I reacting with skepticism? Is there some unexamined emotion I'm feeling or an implicit bias I'm not recognizing? Am I just internalizing a prejudice or propaganda from somewhere? Am I hungry, angry, lonely, tired?

If everything is subject to suspicion and questioning, the fact that you react to something with suspicion and questioning should itself be subject to suspicion and questioning. You might not get to a place where you instinctively think happy thoughts but you might at least get to a point where you can believe that your skeptical voice doesn't reflect the true nature of things.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:29 AM on September 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Switch your focus from "Why won't this work?" to "How can I make this work?"

As an optimistic critical thinker, I find people who constantly stop their analysis at pointing out flaws to be doing only half the work. Come up with better ideas! Come up with solutions to the flaws you've discovered! Figure out what's missing from Theory A and figure out a way to integrate bits of Theory B to make it a stronger theory! Add creativity to the criticism; think about building on things rather than tearing them down.
posted by lazuli at 8:30 AM on September 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Joy and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive. One can delight in the beauty of the world while also seeing reality as it is, including all of the ugliness, very clearly. IMO, the ability to balance these two requires a lot of inner work using that critical, skeptical thinking on the way that we habitually think and feel about things. IME, people who tend to be Pollyannish wanting everything to be nice all of the time need to look at and work on their own attachment. Similarly, the folks who tend to become angry at this stuff need to look at the disadvantages of holding onto all that anger. Both the attachment and the anger not only get in the way of being able to fully experience joy. They also impact our ability to see reality as it is, because they tend to project a not quite accurate opinion onto it.
posted by jazzbaby at 8:34 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's a difference between being a skeptic/critical thinker and being a contrarian. Thinking critically doesn't mean finding fault in everything, or only looking at the flaws. It includes finding amazing insights in theories, arguments, etc. and being awed by them. Acceptance of the good with the bad, and most importantly, accepting the paradoxes inherent in so many things, is an important part of critical thinking.

I myself don't believe in God, or even spirituality, or in any supernatural phenomena, unproven theories about healing, etc. But I see nothing not-happy about that. I find it extremely de-stressing to set all that nonsense (to me) aside.

I'm not sure if by happy thoughts you mean believing in falsehoods, and that's why you find it difficult. To me there's plenty of happy stuff in reality.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 9:26 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I want to be one of those happy people who have beautiful relaxing, HAPPY thoughts.

posted by flabdablet at 10:21 AM on September 17, 2017

In case they're of use to you, here are some of the beautiful relaxing thoughts that make me happy and will, I should think, stand up moderately well to critical skepticism:

* This moment is unique; no other moment at any other place is exactly like this one, so right here right now is worth paying attention to (or at the very least, not ignoring).

* I will die one day, and that's as it should be. But even though past performance is indeed no guarantee of future returns, today is quite probably not that day.

* I have air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, a warm safe place to sleep, people to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. That's a tick in every box!

* Happiness is not compulsory, and is in any case beaten all hollow by contentment.

* Achievement is overrated.

* If I knew what I was doing, why would I bother?
posted by flabdablet at 10:36 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

The one thing that I would note is that skepticism and cynicism "feel" right and more truthful, but that in and of itself is a bias with little justification.
posted by WCityMike at 10:51 AM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel like I ought to be able to give some kind of helpful response, since I think of myself as both a happy, optimistic person and a skeptical critical thinker. But when I read the question I found myself at a loss because I don't understand where you're coming from at all. Why on earth would you feel like being optimistic is at odds with being a critical thinker?

It sounds like maybe you think of optimism as something that comes from foolish disregard for the realities of life or from foolish belief in comforting ideas like God, heaven, or using positive thinking to cure cancer and make you rich. I'm here to tell you that you can be happy and optimistic without believing anything of the sort. I can't tell you how to get there, though. I can just tell you how it looks from my point of view.

I think skepticism can make you happy because it opens up so many possibilities. The things you've always assumed were true may not be true. You don't even know for sure that you're not a brain in a vat being stimulated by scientists into believing you're having experiences. The skeptic lives in a world of unknowns and possibilities, not a world of boring certainty.

Being a critical thinker can help set you free. You may decide you don't actually have to do some of the things other people have told you were important, like go to church or be patriotic or have a strong work ethic or a weed-free lawn. And it leads to you living more deeply, with greater awareness. You don't just do what everyone else does and think what everyone else thinks, without reflection. You question things, and that leads to better understanding - and changing, evolving understanding. You get wiser as you get older.

Why wouldn't living that way make you happy? And so many of the things that can make you happy aren't things that have anything to do with how critically you look at the world. Music, eating, humor, the blue sky, the smell of roses, a warm body next to yours in bed, exploring a new place for the first time. Those things are there for you to enjoy, so while you're doing your critical thinking, go ahead and enjoy them! (Even if you're a brain in a vat, the enjoyment is real.)
posted by Redstart at 1:00 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I taught myself to be more optimistic, but I'm not sure that looking on the bright side always ensure happy thoughts. Even if something doesn't work out, I pay attention to what I can learn from that event/choice.
I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, I don't take things as personally as I used to, and I can experience my emotions but not have those emotions dictate my actions. Lazuli's approach seems very wise, to me.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:17 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a curmudgeon and somewhat contrarian, having a positive and forward-thinking outlook in these dark days is kinda like a process of creative rebellion.

I could quote that pop singer Morrissey (who can be awful in many other respects):
“It's so easy to laugh, It's so easy to hate, It takes guts to be gentle and kind”

I don't agree with everything Morrissey says, but I agree with this statement. I actually don't agree with everything anyone says! I really like Noam Chomsky, and I'd agree with him most of the time, but not always. I could say this about all of the thinkers and artists that have inspired me. They have can brilliant ideas, but not every idea they have is worthwhile. Musicians have created music that has deeply mooved my soul, but not on every album, and I often don't even like them as personas.

bell hooks (paraphrase) advises not to get too trapped in binary thinking. I think that trying to be open to a more complex view of things makes it possible to let the critical light in. I love my family, and I don't always agree with them, but still love.
posted by ovvl at 4:37 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

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