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The Myth of Positive Thinking

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 4, 2012

Having a radio show is useful in that it gives me a soapbox to occasionally vent from when I encounter frustrating examples of magical thinking in my real life.  Recently I’ve run into some proponents of the positive thinking crowd. What is this “positive thinking” thing you ask? Well at the basic level, we’re talking about optimism. The view/attitude that things are and will get better, and that viewing the world in an optimistic way, means overlooking the negative bad things and focusing all that’s good and saying happy, determined and self confident.

What a bunch of assholes, eh?

No, I’m just kidding, that all sounds pretty good, what could be wrong with that? Well “positive thinking” has taken on a new meaning, with rather woo-woo tendencies.

People like Deepak Chopra, self help guru’s, and others have written libraries of books on how to “think positively” to change your life. One famous example is the book The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, a preacher/motivational speaker. Another famous example is the book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne.

Here’s a definition on “positive thinking” similar to the sort tone seen in these practitioners of self improvement:

“Positive thinking is a mental attitude that admits into the mind thoughts, words and images that are conductive to growth, expansion and success. It is a mental attitude that expects good and favorable results. A positive mind anticipates happiness, joy, health and a successful outcome of every situation and action. Whatever the mind expects, it finds.”

So what could be wrong with this?

The problem is that positive thinking, no matter what form it takes, won’t replace key component’s to success or even achieving, say, Sam Harris’s the good life.

  • -Luck (some people are lucky, they get a big break, they find a great job, they don’t get born in abject poverty…)
  • -Hard work (some people spend all their time working just to make enough to survive. Others spend virtually every hour of the day devoted to their work, whether that’s building a computer operating system, running a home business or making building a space shuttle.
  • -Help (very few people are self made. Most people have received help from someone in a better position at some point that allowed them to succeed later in life. Maybe your parents letting you stay rent free while you got your degree, or a mentor who gave you valuable advice, or a day care that took care of your kids while you worked two jobs to make ends meet.)

What positive thinking suggests, is that there is this law of attraction that one’s mental disposition attracts similar external circumstances and events. In other words, your mental intentions and attitudes draw people and things of like intention and attitude to yourself. On one level this is trivially true. We generally hang out with people who think like us and share our values and we avoid people who disagree with us on important matters and don’t share our values.

However I’m sure we all know a few people who are just miserable S.O.B’s who happen to be very successful. Steve Jobs for instance, he was generally considered to be a very accomplished man. However, he was well known for his horrible attitude to his employees and lack of personal skills.

When we look at the book The Power of Positive Thinking and consider some of the criticism of the theory – the book is full of anecdotes that are hard to substantiate. Almost all of the experts and many of the testimonials that Peale quotes as supporting his philosophy are unnamed, unknown and not directly sourced. Examples include a “famous psychologist,” a two-page letter from a “practicing physician,” another famous psychologist, a “prominent citizen of New York City,” and dozens, if not hundreds, more unverifiable quotations.

Even the very notion that “positive thinking” acts as some sort of magnet for wealth and success fails for we never get a single explanation of how this supposed mechanism actually works. Are we all secretly psychic? When we really examine what this theory is suggesting that would be one of the conclusions we could draw.

But okay, so really, why do we need to get all skeptical about this? Can’t we just let these people “think positively” No. Because this isn’t some innocent game where no one gets hurt.

Positive thinking provides people with the illusion of having control over their lives. All I need to do is change my attitude and intentions and I’ll attract money like a magnet (or lose weight or whatever else it is I want to achieve). If it doesn’t work, it’s your fault because you didn’t genuinely change your attitude and intentions. If this sounds familiar, it’s also what faith healers say about people who don’t get better, they didn’t believe enough.

Nonsense

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we humans have NO control over our lives and a person like Bill Gates is just pure lucky and the homeless person on the street is just pure unlucky… like I mentioned earlier, many different factors play a role in success or failure. Luck is a big component of that. I rather appreciate that about life. Luck makes me humble. I know that when I see a person who is not doing so well at life, perhaps they don’t have the money for food or enough for a bed each night, I know that the reason I’m here and not there, isn’t because I’m some kind of super star  and they are some kind of loser, I was lucky to be born in a middle class family in Canada.

Hard work does play a huge role. Yes, some people fail because they don’t work hard enough or don’t pull their weight. It happens. And there are many other factors, having the guidance to find success, having the intelligence to build it up and prosper because of it, like I said, many factors.

And I’m not denying the importance of being an optimist either. As we learned from Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds and Quirkology, if you are an optimist, you don’t let failure get you down, you tend to see the world as a place of opportunity and not failure after failure.

But this is completely different from just assuming your mental state will draw success to you. And it also doesn’t go so far as to ignore the other elements that make up success, hard work, luck and intelligence.

If you want to succeed at something, draw up a plan of action. List what you want to achieve. List what you must do to achieve your goals in the order you must do them. Specify how you are going to measure success at each step along the way.

Don made a good point on the show, an optimist will create a positive attitude where success is expected, they get out there and look for that success. Positive thinking suggests that success will come looking for you, even if you’re sitting on a couch watching TV.

The danger with such a view of the world is that it invites a really horrible form of blame shifting that I mentioned earlier. If someone didn’t succeed it’s because they didn’t think positively enough. I believe this is a rather insidious way to think about someone. How could it be worse than saying someone didn’t work hard enough? You might ask. Consider a time when you didn’t work hard and failed, you knew there was a reason for that failure, you learned that your output has to be up to the challenge of whatever it is you are doing if you want to achieve your goals.

Someone could come along and say it was because you didn’t have a positive attitude, Hmm maybe that was it, you think. Now consider a time when you really busted your butt and worked hard and achieved something amazing. Now imagine someone comes along and writes off your hard work and reduces it to magical thinking that magnetically attracts success. All that effort that you put yourself through is reduced to some wishy washy hocus pocus.

Optimism is a great tool, but don’t forget, it isn’t the alpha and omega, only one item in your tool belt of success.

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2 Responses to “The Myth of Positive Thinking”

  1. Sradha said

    I have learned to stay equanimous in the chaos, in the uncertainty of life. It’s beautiful to experience that this is in fact possible. Positive thinking did help me at one point in my life… but today it has a tiny place in my mind. Understaning is slowly dawning unto me.

  2. hyjyljyj said

    This is all fine if one is willing to redefine positive thinking as “sitting back on the sofa thinking optimistic thoughts and then expecting success to come to you”. Of course that definition, which this author uses, is imaginary and thoroughly ridiculous on its face. It arises in exactly zero of the 100-plus titles I’ve read on the subject, including The Secret and the Power of Positive Thinking, which the author singles out for attack–meaning the author has either not bothered to actually read the success literature he ridicules, or has deliberately twisted the fundamental core message expressed therein to make it appear absurd. One might suppose this tactic is intended to make small thinkers feel better about their negative mindset and the crappy things they believe just “happen to them” because they’re “unlucky”.

    In reality, “luck” is nothing more than a loser’s excuse for a winner’s commitment to action. That’s right, I said action, not mere positive thinking. In all cases the reader is exhorted to put positive thought into PRACTICE. This is not so hard to do as negative thinkers might imagine, since people all strongly tend to ACT in accord with their dominant thoughts anyway. This is readily observable in the poor-to-mediocre life situation of the negative majority, who buy into small-thinking, negative assumptions and fear consciousness. If success is just for the lucky few–the “other–then they never bother to believe something better might be possible for them, so they never even try. That erosion of hope is the ultimate result of believing articles like this one.

    To simplify for simple-minded folk such as this author: Positive thinking leads to positive doing. That’s why it works, not by “magic”.

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