Flipping America's Switch

In 1987, I took a self-improvement course called Lifestream that changed my life, simply by enabling me to shift my thinking from negative to positive. In one of the exercises, the facilitator asked us to think about all the negativity in our lives. It was amazing. Just by focusing on the negative, I and the 50 other people in the room shut down our imaginations and were sucked into our own individual pity parties.

The facilitator then asked us to envision all of the positives in our lives. Within a short time, we shifted from depression to optimism about life and its possibilities. At some point, you've probably experienced this shift, too.

But let's look for a moment at the negativity the 50 of us produced that day. Then multiply it by about three million. That's about equal to the number of people today who are pessimistic about the American economy -- and with it, their hopes for the future. That's a lot of negativity.

There's no question that America has experienced hard times and many Americans are scared and suffering. But wallowing in it, as we so often do, doesn't help. As I learned that day in the Lifestream course, we can flip the switch on or off; it's that simple. If that many Americans' switches are off, we can't possibly harness the imagination, ingenuity and energy we need to reinvent an America that works. I'm not suggesting that we turn a deaf ear to those in need of help, or that we blame those in need, only that pessimism breeds stagnation at best and failure at worst.

Back in the 1930's, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American steel billionaire who dedicated his philanthropy to building libraries, wanted to help Americans find the secret of being successful. He commissioned a young journalist, Napoleon Hill, to interview the most successful self-made men in America to find out their formula. Hill discovered that the common denominator to success was not intelligence or money, but that that the most successful people were absolutely, positively and passionately convinced that they would succeed. And against the odds, they did.

More recently, this power of the positive has been affirmed by science and put to use in business. University of Pennsylvania's Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, has shown that positive belief alters a patient's mental attitude, outlook and actions. It also causes hormonal changes and brings about emotional healing. Case Western Reserve University's Dr. David Cooperrider, founder of Appreciative Inquiry, has led thousands of business and community groups to create change by building on the power of what they appreciate about their organization.

Given the circumstances many of us face right now, it would be easy for us to become a nation of blamers and victims -- myself included. Most of us complain about something and are surrounded by others who complain. In this presidential election year, media and politicians fuel negativity by role-modeling a complain-and-attack mentality. But other than blowing off steam, venting doesn't help. In fact, it hurts, sucking away our individual and collective energy and imagination.

A few months ago, I met will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. He spoke about his dreams for his song, Yes We Can. He explained that his intention was for it to become a rallying cry for Americans to embrace the idea that, together, ordinary people can create change.

It reminded me that in the past, in times like these, Americans have looked to great leaders to inspire them with visionary dreams and bold actions. But it certainly doesn't look like that's about to happen any time soon. So instead, I suggest we take our cue from will.i.am and look to our individual, ordinary selves for proof that there is goodness in America, and that we take pride in the good that we see.

In today's America, we need both appreciation and emotional healing, fueled by positive attitudes and an absolute, positive and passionate belief that, together, we will succeed. The concept of the American Dream, that any American regardless of economic or social status can achieve, potentially, to the highest social and economic level, starts first with a positive belief. As Dr. Wayne Dyer said, "if you believe it, you will see it."

Changing our nation, changing our world, starts with changing our minds and changing ourselves. In this presidential election year, whether the focus is on eight votes in Iowa or a block of eight million votes, I suggest we tune out the negativity and turn on the will, the desire and the focus to build on our individual and collective strengths. It won't solve all our nation's problems. But it will help.

I'm not suggesting that America just clap if we believe. But what I am advocating is that ordinary Americans, both the "99%" and the "1%," focus first on what's going right with our country and then develop plans that embrace our shared values and common hopes and dreams. The first step is to start a wave of honest conversation -- with our neighbors, in our schools, at our religious institutions, in our businesses -- that reclaims civility, decency, respect and a sense that we're all in this together. Let's get started.

"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." will.i.am

To see how America's shared values can help spark a conversation, go to www.Purpleamerica.us