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Where's the Pony? Choosing Useful Mindsets and Mental Filters

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Supposedly President Ronald Reagan had a favorite question he liked to ask when things looked bleak, “Where’s the pony?”

The question refers to an old story told several different ways. The basics of the story are this. Two boys see reality differently. One sees life as bad, the other sees life as good. They are sent to a psychiatrist.

For the first boy, the psychiatrist fills a room with all sorts of toys. For the second boy, he fills the room with horse manure. Surely that will affect how they see reality, the psychiatrist reasons.

Afterwards, the psychiatrist is shocked with the findings. The boy with all the toys is crying. He worries that if he plays with the toys they are sure to break. Life sucks. The other boy is frolicking around, joyfully digging his hands into the manure. The puzzled psychiatrist asked what he’s doing and why he’s happy in these terrible circumstances. The boy replies, “With all this manure, there’s sure to be a pony around here somewhere.”

Where’s the pony? became a catch phrase for Reagan for putting on a mental filter, a mindset, for finding opportunity in a mess.

Another catch phrase is silver linings. It comes from an idiom – “every cloud has a silver lining.” Some say it is traceable back to a poem by John Milton. The idea is that one may commonly find something promising or valuable in a bad situation. That idiom holds a mindset as well.

Certain mindsets are associated with better outcomes. Better physical and mental health, better relationships, better use of resources – including mental resources, even better luck. Better luck? Really? Yes, according to Dr. Richard Wiseman who wrote The Luck Factor.

One story I remember from the book is when Wiseman is interviewing people who think they are lucky. One of them has a broken leg. The conversation goes something like this, “I notice you have a broken leg, but you call yourself lucky. How is that?” The man with the broken leg, “Of course! I fell down a flight of stairs. I could have easily broken my neck!”

So-called positive mindsets are associated with outcomes most of us generally seek. They originate with what some psychologists call “primals” which is short for primal world beliefs. Primals refer to extremely simple beliefs about the world as a whole which trigger behaviors, thoughts, emotions and affects us in a number of ways.

For example, it makes sense that if we believe we are in a dangerous situation, cortisol will be pumping in our bloodstream, our hearts will be racing, our palms will be sweaty. We will be in what’s commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” We will have narrow, tunnel vision.

If we believe the WHOLE world is dangerous, we’re going to spend a lot of time in fight or flight (or freeze). And that’s going to have negative implications for our health and well-being and our ability to marshal our resources and take advantage of our opportunities.

Similarly, it seems obvious that if we think (have the mindset) that the world is enticing, fun, interesting, beautiful, abundant, we are going to have different, more positive outcomes than if we think it is dull, barren, meaningless.

(I often joke that if you’re married you know that we can inhabit different realities. I have personal jokes and stories about that. Once when my husband John and I walked around Lake Michigan. Later we talked about our experiences. I told him that it seemed to be a place for lovers. John thought it was a place for boaters. I had seen lovers walking around holding hands. John didn’t see them. He saw ships. Quite big ships he claims. I thought he was missing what was right in front of his eyes. I didn't ask, but I am pretty sure he thought I was a dunce...missing all the big ships. What we do with our attention comes from our mindset... which directs it to go around amassing evidence to confirm our reality. Our spouses can help, but it may cause a bit of mental and relationship meltdown. I know of what I speak here)

While psychologists refrain from saying directly that certain mindsets or primals CAUSE certain outcomes, rather they are saying certain mindset, certain primals, are associated with, that is, correlated with certain outcomes. And the question is not so much about who is right about the whole of reality (that is, is it good/bad – safe/dangerous, enticing/dull) but about which mindset is going to be more useful on our journey.

Now that may be difficult to sit with - that we aren’t totally sure about the reality of the world (whether it is a good or bad place filled mostly with lovers or boats), but believing that the world IS a good place (on the balance) may help us live a better life.

To harken back to a previous blog which mentioned growth mindset. Those who believe in a growth mindset are the ones who do change. If we want to change, then having a growth mindset is quite useful.

It makes sense to me that those who believe there is a silver lining to every cloud, find one. Those who look for ponies in the manure are more likely to find them. Those who look for their blessings are more likely to find them. And that sets in motion all sorts of ripple effects.

Scientists do not yet know where our primals come from. They have done enough study to make the claim that primals do not come from our objective conditions. If we live in bad, dangerous places with high crime and violence, you would think that we would clearly see the world as bad. Evidently it isn’t the case. Rich people in gated quarters don’t see the world as any more abundant, safe, interesting than others either.

Most of us don’t know what our primals are. One way to find out is to take a survey. You can take a six question, an 18 question, and 99 question survey. We can decide if our primals are serving us and how we might change them if we choose. (My link to this is not working. You can get there yourself - Google Primals, Jer Clifton, click on 26 beliefs).

For example, I have pondered about how to help myself and others have more of a silver linings mindset. Seems to me that a silver lings mindset is extremely valuable.

Recently, I heard Dr. Arthur Brooks recommend an idea which might work. The concept is to create a failure journal. (I would call it a silver linings journal instead). Those setbacks or adversities that hit us, we write down. Then one month later, we re-visit the setback. We ask ourselves what we learned from it. Then six months later we visit it again and write about what good thing(s) came out of the adversity.

We start getting the idea that we can learn from setbacks, that good things can come out of difficulties. Our brains get re-wired. We can find ponies in the manure.

And we can re-wire our brains for gratitude, for growth, for optimism as well…IF we choose. It’s our call.

(and here's a gratitude and the brain 11 minute or so youtube which may help you decide)

How might we journey together to The Good Life by knowing more about our primals and choosing what is most useful?


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