We all know what “paranoia” is…professionally, it refers to a disorder of the mind involving delusions, usually persecutory in nature. In general use, we use the word to describe someone who is suspicious that the world is conspiring to hurt them. Less known is the term “pronoia,” which is, in essence, the opposite of paranoia. Pronoia is the belief that the world is working in your behalf…to help you. It is the understanding that the universe is fundamentally “me-friendly”.
We are more aware of, and comfortable with, the word “paranoia” because it’s more reflective of how we tend to view our lives. Rather than focusing on the hundreds of things that go right for us everyday, we instead focus almost exclusively on those things that go wrong. As I sit here in my comfortable office typing on my laptop, I could be amazed by all the things going right for me at this moment. I’m in pretty good health, even though I could take better care of myself. My surroundings are safe and comfortable…with the touch of a few buttons I can make the room warmer, I can fill the room with more light, I can make a hot cup of coffee, I can go to my refrigerator and fix a snack, and I can listen to the music of my choice.
I typically take all of the things mentioned above, and many others, for granted…at least until something goes a little wrong and I become inconvenienced. The cable goes out on the TV while I’m watching it, the closet light bulb burns out when I’m picking out what to wear, there’s not enough milk left in the carton to have a bowl of cereal, the newspaper wasn’t in the yard by 6am, someone used all the hot water…so many things can go wrong. Should one of these things occur, I can quickly become unsettled and dissatisfied. Should a couple of them occur around the same time, paranoia can take hold…”Oh boy, it’s going to be one of those days!”
Focusing on what goes wrong is a sure way to feel miserable. It breeds feelings of discontent, pessimism, and paranoia. It is amazing that even with all the bad feelings it brings us, we continue to hold fast to the practice of tuning in to what goes wrong, and then making a big deal of it. It would seem that we would use an averaging model and see that, by and large, many, many more things go right for us everyday than go wrong. This would result in feelings of appreciation, optimism, and pronoia.
The first step to correcting a problem, of course, is to become aware of its existence. The next step is to make a commitment to change. The problem at hand is attending too much to what goes wrong (or could go wrong) and not enough to what goes right. Simple enough. But it doesn’t come without some risk. There is a disorder called Stendahl Syndrome (named after a French novelist who experienced a nervous breakdown when he witnessed the beauty of an expansive art collection), which involves people becoming overwhelmed by the beauty of things. There are many reports of this happening to sightseers visiting the works of Michelangelo, or Niagra Falls, or the Grand Canyon. They apparently become so struck by the beauty of what they behold, that they become emotionally overwhelmed. I don’t know about you, but this seems like a disorder I’d like to experience before I die.
As we enter into this new year, a time when it’s a tradition to make resolutions for a better next year, I would propose that we all resolve to practice pronoia, and hold fast to the belief that the universe is user-friendly and that things are always going to work out. Instead of focusing so much of our attention on what’s gone wrong, we can all benefit from being more mindful of all the many things that go right in our lives. I resolve to become more of a “pronoiac” during the upcoming year, looking for proof that the world is working to provide me with what I need to be happy.