The perks and perils of ‘Positive Thinking’.

In 2007, a book called The Secret was released, a year after a film of the same name. Oprah liked it so much she couldn’t seem to shut up about it… or so said all the people in my life at the time who even occasionally watched Oprah.  I, on the other hand, hated it so much that I wrote a psychology term paper in college on just how very wrong it was, and have since gotten into multiple fights about it with family members.

The “secret” of the book is the idea of the “law of attraction” which, sadly, does not in this case refer to any actual physical principle. Rather, the law claims that ‘like attracts like’ and that therefore positive thoughts attract positive outcomes, and negative thoughts attract negative outcomes. In the original and most extreme version of this idea, the mechanism behind the effect is essentially… the universe reading your mind, and delivering life events accordingly.

A very brief history of “positive thinking” in popular thought

As absurd as this idea sounds, The Secret was hardly the first to espouse it. The idea of the law of attraction specifically dates back to the New Thought movement in the 1800’s. In the early 1900’s, people saw the appeal of explicitly extending this idea to the world of business with titles such as Think and Grow Rich, and the general idea of thinking-yourself-_____ (rich, happy, successful, thin) has been a staple of the self-help industry pretty much ever since.

As Oprah found out rather quickly when a viewer decided to forgo cancer treatment in favor of thinking her way to a cure, this idea can be pretty dangerous. If you really think that just THINKING happy things will bring you good things, then why put any real effort torwards other (perhaps more reliable) routes to improvement? And I think that all but the most loony of us can agree that convincing people to pass up proven solutions in favor of magical thinking is a bad thing.

Can Positive Thinking be a good thing if you drop the mystical bullshit?

Many would argue (and have. to me. repeatedly.) that if you put aside from the obvious silliness of believing one’s head is a transmission tower for “thought frequencies”, if you take the whole thing as more of a metaphor…. then what’s the harm?  I mean: “Just think positive.” It’s a pretty innocuous, if annoying, bit of advice, right?  What kind of asshole could be against optimism?

Well, me. (And Barbara Ehrenreich*, but she doesn’t write here, so you’re stuck with me.) And I’m actually not that much of an asshole.

Here’s the deal.

There’s definitely something to be said for deliberately changing how you think in order to better yourself in some way.  If that wasn’t possible, then all self-help books and all talk therapy would be for naught.

There’s also definitely value in what psychologists call “positive affect”… basically, being happy is a good thing and it feels good. Well duh. Thinking positive thoughts can also make you feel positive/happy. Duh again.

There are are also side-effects of believing in the power of positive thinking that are arguably good for you. For instance, having an “internal locus of control”–basically, believing that you have control over events rather than believing that things are largely ‘out of your hands’–results in positive behaviors such as taking part in social change movements and responding constructively to frustration. And then there’s also the very real social psychology phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies–when you expect bad behavior from others, in some cases you make said behavior more likely, presumably because your expectations show through to the other person in ways you may not be aware of.**

The dangers of Positive Thinking

All that said, positive thinking isn’t all sunshine and rainbows (as I somewhat cantankerously griped at a commenter the other day, inspiring this post). Why?

Well, for starters (and from a completely personal and un-scientific perspective), if you tell anyone going through major negative life events or mental illness that they just need to ‘think positive’, they’re going to waste some of their precious mental and emotional energy that should be going towards self care…. on resisting the urge to punch you in the face.  That, or you’re going to get punched in the face.  And you’ll kind of deserve it.

But my personal anger aside, positive thinking is a crappy self-help idea because:

There is an incredibly extensive literature on the value of optimism in improving disease outcomes, and “thinking positive” has a very mixed track record. Scientifically, it’s a mess. For one thing, there are definitional issues: what are we studying? optimistic personality-types? happiness? deliberate positive thinking? It’s hard to do good science on a subject people have such strong personal opinions about–value judgements interfering left and right. Frankly, reading the literature on this drives this biologist a little bit insane… so much fuzziness and poorly defined variables and individual variation and potential for bias, AHHH!!

But nonetheless, people are trying quite hard to study this stuff… and there are some consistent findings. Basically, it appears that optimism is an asset when dealing with more minor stressors that can be influenced by the behavior of an individual, and less of an asset or even detrimental when the stressors are more resistant to change.

This is all still fuzzy and controversial, but the fact remains: optimism/positive thinking is not by any means a clear good under all circumstances, so pretending that it is… not intellectually honest or fair.

    • It places responsibility for negative events on the person experiencing them–aka, victim blaming.

Do I really have to explain this? The flip side of telling people that they can attract good things into their life by being positive, is that you’re also telling them that anything bad that comes into their life is their fault… it would have never happened had they been more positive! And if you have any empathy at all, you should get that telling cancer patients or starving children that they basically got what was coming to them is fucking evil, full stop.

    • Suppressing negative thoughts and emotions is difficult, takes energy, and is generally not super healthy.

In organizational psychology they refer to this as “emotional labor” and if you’ve ever spent much time working in retail, you’ve experienced it.  It as actually, legitimately difficult to force a smile and optimistic attitude when you’re exhausted/sad/miserable. The research on this is somewhat complex (as you might imagine given that both the emotional effort required of workers and circumstances under which it is demanded vary widely) and I don’t want to misconstrue it otherwise. However, there is plenty of evidence that emotional labor causes stress and that this stress often has negative consequences for the employees, including ‘burnout’.

    • There are much better (read: evidence supported!) ways to improve yourself by changing how you think.

I’m going to write a whole separate post on this one, but in short: cognitive therapy techniques, mindfulness practice, cultivating gratitude, self-compassion, and other related ideas.

tl;dr, or What’s the verdict?

Thought is a powerful force, not because it sends some kind of magic radio waves out to a universe that delivers on all requests but somehow is unable to understand negatives***, but be cause it shapes our feelings and our behaviors.  “Thinking positive” can be a good thing, but dealing with complex problems generally requires more nuanced solutions, and in the right circumstances even a little negative thinking can be a good thing.  This is especially true for people struggling with disorders of thought and emotion like depression and anxiety, and if you are in the habit of telling depressed people to “be more positive” or recite affirmations, you should stop that right now.

———————–

*Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a whole book about roughly what I just wrote a post on, but I haven’t read it. Sounds awesome though, so if you’ve read it feel free to let me know what you thought.

**This has been shown with romantic rejection and parental expectations of alcohol use, as well as lots of other things. It doesn’t apply in all situations though, so do your research before making any assumptions.

***One of the more infuriating things about the ‘law of attraction’ is its adherents insistance that thinking “I don’t want get/be fat” or “Please don’t let me get cancer” will result in the undesired result being more likely to happen. Really? The universe can read my mind but it doesn’t know what “not” or “no” mean? RARGH.

7 Comments

  1. Fascinating article. I agree that Positive Thinking without action will basically give you a short term fix and long term frustration. That’s where “The Secret” falls down in my opinion. It doesn’t flag up that you need to take action. But if you’re motivated by it to take action, then it’s doing some good.
    Having a positive attitude, again backed up with appropriate action, can lead you to subconsciously think and act differently. We tend to act in accordance with our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Those beliefs are created by our thinking certain thoughts over a period of time. Changing our beliefs can change our reactions to life.

    • That’s probably true… for a person with normal brain chemistry.

      However, I still think folks need to be careful about stating categorically that changing your thinking will always change your reactions to life. For instance, a depressed person is far less capable of changing their thinking than someone who isn’t depressed; that’s what makes depression such an insidious disease. Depressed brain chemistry makes it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to even recognize one’s negative thought patterns, much less change them. Telling a depressed person to just think positive thoughts is not only bullshit, it’s actively dangerous: after all, what happens when they wake up feeling depressed one day in spite of all the happy thoughts they’ve been forcing themselves to think? Then they’ve failed at thinking happy – in addition to all the other apparent failures that were making them depressed in the first place. It will end up making them feel worse about themselves and their life.

      I have an additional problem with The Secret. I think it’s, well… irresponsible, at best, to encourage people to take action based on the positive things they think they’re bringing into their lives. For a very basic example: in the movie based on The Secret, they point out that if you focus on bills coming into your mailbox, you’ll attract more bills – but if you focus on money, you’ll attract more money! Great! So now that I know I have extra money on the way (because I thought really happy thoughts about it), I should go buy that motorcycle I’ve been wanting, right?

      Personally, I think it’s a better idea to counsel people on how to deal with the parts of their life they have no control over, rather than giving them false hope and ways to pretend they can exert any kind of influence in areas where they clearly can’t.

      (And, for the record, I actively practiced the methodologies in The Secret for about a year. That year was not noticeably different than the year I spent praying, the year I spent chanting, or the years since when I’ve just accepted that life happens and I have to deal with it. =/)

      • “I still think folks need to be careful about stating categorically that changing your thinking will always change your reactions to life.”

        Very true, which is part of why I wrote the post in the first place. Changing your thinking can be helpful, but it is not at all a trivial thing to do.

        Rargh. More to say but words are failing me today, hence my failure to give more of a response to this comment myself earlier. Thanks for commenting, you said it better than I appear to be capable of at the moment.

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