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The Problem with Positive Thinking

If we were to blame anybody for the plethora of self-help books in recent decades, it should probably be Norman Vincent Peale. Peale was the author of the enormously successful, and still available, The Power of Positive Thinking. The book was first published in 1952. Peale was a modern day evangelist who promoted the dogma that “there is a deep tendency in human nature to become precisely what you visualise yourself as being”.

This was the precursor to the fashionable New Age concept of the “law of attraction”. This tenet holds that the only thing you need in order to attain riches, great relationships and good health is to be able to visualise yourself enjoying such circumstances.

I can remember discussing such things with the good Dr Phil. He told me of a book he had read where the author related she used such a technique when driving. As she approached each intersection she merely visualised that the lights would be green and, according to her, nine times out of ten they were! Phil posed the eminently sensible question of what would happen if someone of the same belief approached the intersection to her left or right! I would predict that this might unleash some reality testing experiences!

Research shows that those who are optimistic are indeed generally happier, but they are also often misguided. Pessimists, as you might expect, are generally more realistic. We are disposed to promote optimism. Even the doyen of happiness psychologists, Martin Seligman, was inspired to write a book called Learned Optimism. He obviously felt that people would be better off if they could assume an optimistic disposition.

Seligman, of course, could hardly be described as a “pop-psychologist”. He is a respected academic and researcher. And unlike the pop-psychologists he doesn’t prescribe the “three easy steps to happiness” or whatever.

What research does tell us is that pessimists are more in touch with reality. Their gloomy prognostications are in fact more likely to be true than the idealistic forecasts of their optimistic colleagues. Pessimists are therefore less likely to be disappointed when things go wrong. Optimists would counter with the fact that their positive thinking endows them with a greater sense of satisfaction in the long term even if they are occasionally disappointed.

We could pursue these arguments in more depth trying to decide which point of view provides the greatest comfort to its adherents. But if we did we would miss the point! We are asking the wrong question.

After reading all I can on the subject and relying on the works of philosophers as disparate as Seneca and Alan watts, the conclusion I have come to is that the effort to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure or sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy.

In his little book, The Wisdom of Insecurity Alan Watts wrote:

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it ‘the backwards law’. When you try to stay on the surface of the water you sink; but when you try to sink you float ……insecurity is the result of trying to be secure ….contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.”

I will elaborate on some of these thoughts in a little while. But in short the problem with those using the tool of positive thinking is that they think that they can control the world! If only I have sufficient belief and I try as hard as I can, I can be wealthy, healthy, attractive or whatever.

Now to my mind there are two deeply innate problems here.

The first is we are deluding ourselves if we think we can control the universe! We need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that as a result our lives are inherently unpredictable. No amount of positive thinking is going to change that. We are all subject to the random variables that the universe manifests and none of us can avoid the laws of chance. As I have written in other pieces, those that have been blessed by good fortune write self-help books where they take credit for benefits their good fortune has bestowed on them. I can’t once remember seeing a book with a title something like “I am a self-made failure!” This is an example of attribution theory where we are more than willing to take credit for our successes but never want to believe we are responsible for our failures which we rationalise away as not being directly responsible to ourselves!

The philosophers who first came to grip with Mankind’s inability to control the lives of individuals in a meaningful way were the Buddhists and the Stoics.

As the writer, Oliver Burkeman puts it:

“For the Stoics the ideal state of mind was tranquillity, not the positive cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word ‘happiness’. And tranquillity was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s own circumstances.”

In order to achieve such tranquillity, the Stoics advocated not avoiding negative thoughts and emotions but by confronting them. If we can imagine ourselves in the worst situations and understand (usually) that the outcomes are not beyond us to contend with then we can enhance our resilience.

In this way the Stoics came to understand that nothing outside your own mind can be properly described as negative or positive at all. What causes suffering is the belief we hold about the world. We have little choice in controlling what may befall us in the world. What choice we do have is how we interpret what goes on in the world. As Shakespeare has Hamlet rightly say, “There is nothing either or good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Or perhaps even more poignantly the quote from Richard Bach:

“What the caterpillar sees as the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly!”

Similarly the Buddhist sages warned us against attachment as we have seen in previous essays. What happens in the exterior world holds no lasting contribution to well-being.

Or again as the great teacher Anthony De Mello taught:

“Put this program into action, a thousand times:

  1. Identify the negative feelings in you;
  2. Understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality;
  3. Do not see them as an essential part of “I”; these things come and go;
  4. Understand that when you change, everything changes. “

We cannot control the world but we can control how we relate to it, interpret it. Herein lies the path to serenity.

The second innate problem in the positive thinking paradigm (hinted at above) is that it is built on the edifice of the separate self – the ego!

All the evangelists of positive thinking whose thoughts and writings I have encountered are fixated on the promotion of self – whether it be through wealth, happiness, personal relationships, ambition or (in those religiously inclined) personal salvation.

Terence James Stannus Gray was a Taoist philosopher and writer. He went under the pen name of Wei Wu Wei. In his book Ask the Awakened he wrote:

“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 per cent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself — and there isn’t one!”

I have elaborated on this in previous essays and so I won’t go over old ground. Suffice is to say many of those whose work I respect in this field, people like Martin Seligman and Mathieu Ricard, insist that long term personal well-being rests on a platform of altruism and is dependent on an ability to put the self aside.

Therefore, in short, I have reservations about the “power of positive thinking”. Those who attempt this technique and subsequently fail to realise their ambitions, as surely most must do, then are susceptible to the guilt which naturally accompanies their assumptions that they have not tried hard enough. We are all subject to the vagaries of the world and to believe otherwise is a sure path to insanity. The negative path to happiness is not nearly so dramatic or fashionable. But those who can cultivate their minds to see the world more realistically, who have the strength to cultivate detachment and have been quietly imbued with altruism, have discovered a path they can tread with a sense of inner well-being.

The Chinese sage Lao Tzu reminded us that:

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

How wise is that? Our well-being is more dependent on how we go in the world rather than the specific outcomes we achieve.

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  1. 4 Comment(s)

  2.   By Michael on Dec 21, 2013 | Reply

    Thank you Ted. I would like to introduce the idea of choice and future risk in addition to your discussion of how we interpret the present.

    Our brain makes choices. Based on our personality type, cognition, past experiences and other factors, we evaluate the likelihood of events dependent on the choices we might make. We then consider these potential future events in terms of desirability as well as potential for hurt. I suspect our brain integrates the matrix of likelihood and potential impact in the process of making choice.

    I do not believe we can dissociate from the risk analysis of potential hurt, as otherwise we may all be dead. It would be like neurological conditions where people don’t feel pain.

    My belief is that events happen without a divine intention that is personalised to me. I also believe that all lifeforms, particularly people, make choices they believe to be the best for themselves. Reminding myself of this helps manage the hurt that occurs when I attribute personalised intention to experiences past or future, to realise that the world outside just is as it is, as you describe.

  3.   By Matt Smith on Dec 21, 2013 | Reply

    The problem with the power of the positive thinking genre is that it is founded on denial. It had some success in making otherwise intelligent people do and believe stupid things. You could probably make the case that it caused (causes) harm by creating unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment and a sense of betrayal, leading to an increase in social and mental health issues.

  4.   By tedscott on Dec 22, 2013 | Reply

    Michael, so good to hear from you.

    You make some good points here. We do in fact make choices but I suspect that we overestimate the choices that are available. My belief is that the chief decision we make is how to view the world. Quite a few of my essays have addressed this point.

    And of course you are right in putting aside any thoughts of personalised intent whether you imagine it emanating from a deity or even from your fellow human beings. Assumptions about intent always distort our thinking.

    Thank you too Matt. Your statement is a fair summary of a lot of what I was trying to convey to my audience.

  5.   By Geoff Higgins on Dec 23, 2013 | Reply

    I just love the concept: “cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s own circumstances” The ‘cult of self’ is certainly an issue for me and my community.

    On a micro level, ‘calm indifference’ assists in gardening in Rocky in summer. Rather than wallowing in misery, or longing for a beer that is hours away, achieving a sense of detachment is my preferred approach.

    …Geoff

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