Does Positive Thinking Work?


‘I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking and then I thought ‘What the hell good would that do?’

Ronnie Shakes in Burkeman

There is a huge amount of literature on positive thinking, often presented  as ‘good advice’. The writers use almost moral injunctions, prescriptively, and many of these books are full of cautionary tales. Readers are frequently enjoined to change their ways, in a style that is dictatorial, exhortational, patronising, and, on occasions, rather extreme:

Take a close look at the path you are currently on, and if you’re unhappy with it in any way, you have to learn to sway your thinking out of the “how come” syndrome and access the “what if” state of mind and establish a radical change in your reality…..”

‘Sometimes, nothing short of “a whack on the side of the head” can dislodge assumptions that keep us thinking “more of the same.”


But is this therapy☝🏿?

The total emphasis is on the positive and a kind of ‘self-help’ that promises stress-reduction and problem-solution, frequently delivered in a preaching way.

Stop Thinking, Start Living!‘ urges us to not think in ‘negative’ ways, stating that ‘thinking turns events into problems’ and, rather accusingly, : ‘You are the manufacturer of your own thoughts. You are the one doing the thinking that is upsetting you; you are doing it to yourself.’

Whilst such a positive-focussed approach might bring some good feelings in the short term, as we chant self-promoting affirmations such as ” I am becoming stronger every day,” ultimately, deeper and more entrenched thoughts and feelings will persist. They will persist, whether or not we receive ‘a whack on the head’ or attempt to radically ‘change our reality.’

In fact, such a ‘positive’ message can be counter therapeutic, in that if people cannot change, they will feel criticised and defeated.

Paradoxically, this sort of approach, then, can reinforce feelings of failure; it is difficult to try to alter one’s ingrained thinking and behaviour at another’s behest:

‘Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.’

(Burkeman quoting Dostoevsky.)

Research does not support the efficacy of self-help and positive thinking therapies;  the ‘exciting’ energy of the much-hyped, motivational push towards ‘life-changing’ positivity is merely a transient thrill. The ‘negatives’  do not miraculously disappear; they fester covertly, weeping purulently beneath a quagmire of ‘positive thoughts,’ or emerging in disguise as physical or psychological ills.

A research project at the University of Montreal concluded that stress levels increased after reading such books. Other research supports the fact that sometimes lower expectations and anxiety may contribute to positive results.

Burkeman also critiques the ‘gospel of optimism’ :

…the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative- insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness- that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

In Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to be Happy, Bruckner also laments the imperative to be happy and the fact that we are seen as a failure if we cannot fulfil this requirement.

Instead of chasing happiness, he proposes that life is not only about being happy or unhappy; this is black and white thinking. There is ‘a middle ground consisting of minor annoyances, little pleasures, periods of waiting, projects.’

Happy experiences, he emphasises, do not occur through calculated methods, with ‘recipes’ and ‘ethical disciplines’. They arrive episodically, arbitrarily, to surprise us with the good feelings they promote.

Happiness is not achieved through avoiding ‘negative’ thoughts. Surely, living constructively involves acknowledging  and working through difficult feelings.

Brinkmann advocates focussing on the negatives in life to increase our gratitude for the good things we have:

‘Everybody grows old, falls ill and, in the end, they die. If you spend time thinking about your own mortality everyday, you’ll appreciate life more. This is the stoic aphorism memento mori – remember that you will die.’

Research indicates that acknowledging negative feelings can prove beneficial, when, for example, facing chronic illness or other difficult life issues.

In his excellent book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande explores how the reality of death is often avoided, with medical advances offering new treatment choices for the terminally ill.

He cites a research study, in which two groups of terminally ill patients received the usual oncology care, with half the patients also receiving palliative care, where the realities of their mortality were discussed:

‘The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives –  and they lived 25% longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.’

Attempting to create hope where that attempt is unrealistic or avoidant means that, often, what is deemed a ‘positive’ step can, in fact prove detrimental.

In general, bypassing difficult feelings with an idealistic, over-simplistic ‘Think positive! Look on the Bright Side!’ approach results in painful feelings being avoided. However, in doing this, we might also be dodging the lesson to be learned from ‘bad’ experiences.

In reality, good and bad are two sides of the same coin. They are opposites, like Yin and Yang:

yin-yang-2102215_1280      256px-CARAVAGGIO,_A_boy_peeling_fruit_(1593)

Yin and Yang                                                   A Boy Peeling Fruit. Caravaggio.

Opposites are interconnected, the one complements and contains the other. Each needs the other, in order to create a harmonious balance. Without darkness, we could not see the light; as illustrated in Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro in his painting. All is relative. The duality in Nature is everywhere around us. Nothing is absolute, all is fluid and changing. Nothing is as it seems.

Did something disappoint you? Did something sadden you? The school of life wanted to teach you an important lesson through that experience.

(Haemin Sunim . Zen Proverb)

Can We Ever Get Over Past Psychological Damage? Thinking, Psychotherapy and Developing Inner Strength


‘No meaning that comes from outside of ourselves is real. The Buddhahood of each of us has already been obtained. We need only recognise it. Thus the Zen master warns his disciple:

If you Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!’    Sheldon Kopp.

How can we do more than survive childhood damage? Can we ever recover?

Many times, people search for someone to compensate for past losses. This will inevitably mean disappointment. No-one can replace the parent we did not have or rectify a broken childhood.

Thus, life is often disheartening. It might feel that people fall short of  our expectations, as we seek the ‘perfect’ spouse, parent, child, sibling, guru, therapist, friend.

Jung said ‘Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.’

When we expect a saviour, we are a little like Vladimir and Estragon, in Waiting for Godot:


Image:Waiting for Godot. Flickr. Silver TD.

The play may be seen as….

…..a metaphor for the futility of man’s existence when salvation is expected from an external entity, and the self is denied introspection. (Sion, quoting Dukore.)

The protagonists are encaged in nihilism and passivity. They cannot think for themselves. They expect enlightenment, solutions and meaning to appear from outside as they wait and wait.

This issue of being unable to think for oneself is is highly relevant in our twenty-first century society. The ability to do this is being eroded by current societal trends.

These trends are also reflected in psychotherapy, when people often expect advice, solutions and a speedy cure. There is the general rise of a blame culture, regarding others as responsible for one’s own psychological recovery.

Vernhaeghe explores this blame discourse in a paper entitled ‘If They Don’t Make You Happy, Sue Them.’  He observes that often people do not feel they have to work on themselves, thinking they will be ‘made better.’

In reality, it is only through personal ‘introspection’, an exploratory journey into self-understanding, that we can discover how to repair ourselves. Psychological renewal can occur, through life experience and through psychotherapy.

Poppies symbolise such growth out of damage and loss. They grow on the former battlefields of the first world war. They are a living memorial and a reminder of past trauma.Poppies_Growing_on_the_Marne_Battlefield_near_Villeroy_and_Chauconin_France_-_panoramio

Poppies on the Marne Battlefield, France.

Phoenix-like, energy and strength may emerge from the ashes of adversity. Sanford describes how many adults traumatised in childhood have amazing resilience. It is frequently said that lifelong emotional damage is inevitable after such experiences, yet there are countless examples of healthy, functioning adults who have experienced childhood abuse.


Healing may be attained, for example, through nurturing relationships, spirituality, self-examination, religion or art. In psychotherapy, people learn to work through their past traumas, emerging stronger and more insightful. How might this be achieved?

The psychotherapy experience, an ‘accompanied’ journey into the self,  is different for everyone; therapists also differ in their approaches. If people are unsure, a preliminary assessment will help people decide whether it is right for them.

Therapy may help people explore faulty beliefs and ideas. An empathic, non-judgmental therapist can enable troubling, repetitive thoughts and emotions to emerge that may have been denied or repressed. Feelings such as guilt, shame or uncontrolled anger might be limiting personally and affect relationships.

There may be an exploration of past experience, discovering its influence on adult feelings, relationships and behaviour. One may thus gain insight into the roots of  psychological pain and how to manage and resolve it.

Whilst therapy cannot make people forget trauma, it can help them to manage the effects better. They become less burdened by disturbing memories and more confident that they have the inner resources to cope.

Often, people come to realise that being human involves having shortcomings ; an aware acceptance of one’s own ‘shadow side‘ makes this feel less threatening and more under control.

Frequently, our human fallibility can be a foundation for empathy and compassion; being flawed is different from being weak. Our idiosyncrasies make us unique and individual; loving another person involves embracing their, and our own, limitations.

Perhaps, paradoxically, our irregularities, our incompleteness, are what makes us real, whole people. Leonard Cohen said : ‘There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in .’

The impossible quest for perfection creates unbearable tension; it is often about feeling inadequate, perhaps partly through high parental expectations. Broken and healed people, at all stages of personal renewal, can be beautiful. Imagine how dull life would be if we all resembled a prototype of human robotic perfection.

The Japanese have a process called kintsukuroi, in which they mend broken pots with gold.


Image: By permission of Kitsugi Oxford (

The repaired piece is changed by the breaking and the recovery; different, but still beautiful. Maybe it will be more valuable, as there is evidence of a past, of its history. Something precious has been added. There is also a powerful visual indicator of the pot’s innate resilience.

Thus it is with the wounded and broken person; repair and improvement are always possible. Out of bad, sometimes there emerges something good, enhancing, reinforcing. This may take the form of new learning, resilience and courage.

People are often inherently stronger than we could possibly imagine. We are born with truly amazing resources and we need to learn to trust and fortify these in ourselves and others.

We end this post with a story from the Talmud. This tells how when a child is born, it possesses all knowledge. Then an angel touches the baby on the lips and it forgets all it once knew. The child will spend the rest of its life trying to remember. The legend has it that the angel’s touch forms the philtrum, the little hollow above our lips.

The angel's whisper


How Can We ‘Become Animal’? Challenging Otherness in Human/Animal Relationships through Art.


Marvin. ©Linda Berman.

‘Art then is fundamentally a product of and for culture and one that points to foundational concerns regarding what it means to be human. Yet the artists working with animals… point to and cast bridges across the divides to the non-human worlds of animals. What a wonderful disorientation takes place in this gesture of reaching across spaces and times.’

Ron Broglio

This week we depart temporarily from focussing on humankind, to pinpoint  reductionist ways of thinking about animals,  as reflected in art and  photography.  I intend to consider new ways of thinking about non- human animals in this post.

The animal has been marginalised in art , reflecting rigid attitudes; thus he is often seen in profile, or as an adjunct to humans. He may be depicted in a group, lacking identity, or categorized in species taxonomies.


Frida Kahlo. ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.’ © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

In the painting above, the cat and monkey function almost as a decorative adornment to the artist; they are behind her, peripheral and omitted from the title.

Whilst animals may be marginalised in our society, this has not always been so. In the past, humans lived and worked with animals. Over time, however, the relationship became distant and people acquired anthropocentric attitudes; animals were taken from their rural habitats into captivity.

We invaded their countryside, but, ironically, humans now see animals as trespassers on their land. A split between nature and culture developed; animals were seen as ‘the other.’

I chose to challenge this through painting. I wondered: how could I represent animals and respect them as sentient beings? Could I understand the non-human animal or find a way of dissolving the boundaries between ‘us and them,’ and ‘become animal?’ (Urpeth, in Calarco and Atterton)

Becoming-animal is not about imitation or imagination. It is real, an interconnectedness, involving reciprocal respect. It precludes reductionist attitudes. It is a process of deep mutual finding, intensely feeling into the other’s being, requiring creative, joined-up thinking.

I was mindful, whilst choosing to paint wild birds, of the idea of hospitality, welcoming all living things who share the earth with us, before knowing or categorizing them. I referenced the portrait, as it usually privileges the human form, challenging human superiority over animals.

I photographed the Martial Eagle, Marvin. I grew to know him and I think he knew me; our relationship animated the painting process. Paradoxically, he grew more ‘real,’ as I painted, as if I were honouring him with a portrait.

The animal gaze was at the heart of my work.  This is no ordinary gaze; it is that of another being, asserting his right of agency. It challenges assumptions of human primacy. It is there in my paintings of wild birds, mugshot- style, challenging marginalization, facing us.

Painting the animal portrait, without objectification, accords the animal centrality, revering individuality and consciousness.  Painting allowed a reverie, a connection with the subject that cannot be adequately expressed linguistically. Through art and music we can create a ‘becoming other’:

‘No art can be imaginative or figurative. Suppose a painter “represents” a bird; this is in fact a becoming-bird that can occur only to the extent that the bird itself is in the process of becoming something else, a pure line and pure color….. imitation self-destructs, since the imitator unknowingly enters into a becoming that conjugates with the unknowing becoming of that which she or he imitates….The painter and musician do not imitate the animal, they become-animal at the same time as the animal becomes what they willed, at the deepest level of their concord with Nature.’ (Deleuze and Guattari)


Baby Bald Eagle. ©Linda Berman


Barn Owl. ©Linda Berman.

I reflected upon what animals might feel and the nature of our interconnections with them. Evidence that animals have feelings is strong, revealing a neurochemical basis for their emotions. Indeed, the appearance of frightened animals resembles ours: wide eyes, body in flight mode. Descartes thought animals were machines, that they lack consciousness and cannot feel pain.


Startled Baby Owl. ©Linda Berman.

Descartes’ way of thinking contrasts with feminist philosopher Helene Cixous’ view of a ‘profound animal humanity.’ (Cixous.)

Buddhists also believe in the connectedness of all living things and many people close to animals experience this bond. Science shows that ‘cross-species intimacy penetrates to the tiny cells in the brain.’(Acampora) When humans empathise with animals, potential emerges for a real meeting.

Thus I entered the animal’s world and experienced how it might be to ‘become animal.’ This concept allows species boundaries to be elastic, enabling a shared experience of each other and the world.(Calarco and Atterton)

For Deleuze and Guattari, ‘flux, change and relation are….more real than permanence, stability and identity.’ (Urpeth, ibid). They recommend flexibility, uncertainty and connection with others, rather than rigidity. They advocate creative transience, instead of immovability, which prevents real contact, and the development of a state of ‘becoming animal’ that is mutually transformative, in relation to music and art:

‘Music takes as its content a becoming-animal… the birds find expression in staccato notes that transform them into so many souls….. the human musician is deterritorialized in the bird, but it is a bird that is itself deterritorialized , “transfigured”, a celestial bird, that has just as much of a becoming as that which becomes with it.’

Marvin’s portrait has something of me in it ‘deterritorialized,’ perhaps the part that likes to ‘fly free.’ As I painted, I lost myself in another; I was becoming bird. Marvin’s ‘becoming’ resides in his ‘transformation’ into a bird worthy of a portrait, like a revered ancestor.

In representing ‘Marvin’ like this, I challenge animal alterity. As I brought the birds into being on canvas, I translated across vernaculars, from the photograph. What emerged was a commonality, human traces in my birds’ eyes. As the birds emerged, I found myself greeting them, welcoming them to the world. I felt part of them, for I had internalised something of their essential nature.

How Can We Learn to be Really Hospitable? Thinking Other, Becoming Other.



‘Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.’

(Derrida,J. and Dufourmantelle A.)

What is hospitality? It is surely about welcoming another into our space. Yet we may also ask ‘How is it that it is our space? And why?’

We share the world with others; it is not ours to own or claim. Thinking that we ‘own’ our country, or our national identity, exclusively, is a myth. Each of us is a blend of the other, a melange of races and cultures:

‘Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation. Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.’


In effect, we are all immigrants. Seeing others as alien, as strangers, is a result of insecurity and bigotry, and it produces scapegoats.

I have, in a previous post  mentioned Kearney’s excellent book Strangers, Gods and Monsters. He describes the creation of scapegoats as a way of ridding oneself of aspects of the personality that may feel ‘bad.’

1024px-William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_ScapegoatThe Scapegoat. William Holman hunt.

‘Most human cultures have been known to deploy myths of sacrifice to scapegoat strangers. Holding certain aliens responsible for the ills of society, the scapegoaters proceed to isolate or eliminate them. This sacrificial strategy furnishes communities with a binding identity, that is, with the basic sense of who is included (us) and who is excluded (them). So the price to be paid for the construction of the happy tribe is often the ostracizing of some outsider: the immolation of ‘the other’ on the altar of the alien.’ (Kearney)

Instead of thinking in terms of creating outsiders and building fictional divisions, it is important to contemplate commonality. We need to make boundaries between self and another more elastic, translate across vernaculars, offer greeting, help, welcome, invitation. We need to practise creating spaces to meet, rather than devising methods of exclusion.


The Good Samaritan.  Balthasar van Cortbemde

How could we learn to create an encountering, a kinship? How can we ‘think other’ and what might this mean?

Thinking other begins with changing attitudes, shifting towards dissolving boundaries between people rather than erecting them. Then one might be able to experience how feels to de-territorialize, to think ourselves into the other’s being, to somehow become other, believing that this will create harmony, rather than discord.

The hospitality of which Derrida speaks in the quotation at the beginning of this post links powerfully with the idea of becoming-other. (Deleuze) This mutually beneficial process involves an awareness that the boundaries between self and other can be regarded as permeable, that we can find new ways of entering into another’s world and inviting them into ours. This is doubtlessly a highly creative endeavour, a charting of new territory, an advancing into a potentially productive and yet unknown area:

…the problem is not to direct or methodically apply a thought which pre-exists in principle and in nature, but to bring into being that which does not exist…..To think is to create- there is no other creation- but to create is first of all to engender ‘thinking’ in thought.

Becoming other, according to Deleuze, involves thinking thoughts that are studied, analysed and original and which represent a radical diversion from fixed ways of thinking. (Semetsky). This process accords the other intense respect, care and consideration, confirming their identity and bringing out the ‘potential best in both oneself and another person, group or nation.’ (Semetsky)

Furthermore, this sense of hospitality, this creative way of thinking and being may also, as Derrida points out, be extended to all species, whether human or non-human. This fact inspired me to explore ways of thinking not only about human interaction but also about the animal; to think of the animal not as ‘the other’, but as ‘an other.’

Thinking of non-human animals in this way challenges some ingrained ways of seeing them. Next week’s post explores ways in which we might think of animals as different from us, but still sentient beings, sharing our world.