Does Positive Thinking Work?

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‘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.”
(Oech)

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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:

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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)

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