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19 Sep 2011

Positive Thinking as Myth

I’ve seen positive thinking do much harm to some folks; if they can’t keep their smiley face on, they feel they’re failing. Moreover, if they fail and don’t know why, they begin to question their attitude thus compounding their problems. Too many times looking at why they can’t do something is declared negativity by their friends, colleagues and family. However, these “negative” thoughts can spurn motivation, preparation and problem solving.

I came upon an excellent article by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz in the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind titled, “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” They summarize research on positive thinking from many angles by concluding that many of the benefits pushed by the self-help movement are tenuous. In one, they declare:

Pessimists were less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death.

Optimists, especially when bolstered by success, can suffer from overconfidence and Pollyannaism, creating financial and business difficulties. They are also less likely to take corrective action because their optimism is a breeding ground for complacency. We see this in something as non-business as losing weight.

Recently, improved technology and research methodologies have taught us that biology and our subconscious influence us far more than we ever thought. “Who we are” is different than “who we think we are” so positive thinking’s influence is temporary at best. That is why it requires constant maintenance very much like a sandcastle does on a beach; we need to address the underlying biological and emotional elements of our being in order to find a more permanent and natural solution.

Optimism and pessimism work best together. One without the other produces a rosy picture on one hand and a bleak one on the other.


2 Responses

  1. *Positive thinking* in the sense of going around with a pasted-on smiley is no more like optimism than *mock turtle* is like turtle. It’s easy to agree with what you write if you confine it to that kind of artificial positive thinking.

    Optimism is however something else. It’s linked to serenity: to the insight that things happen, things that may to me look good, bad or neutral, and I have a choice in how to relate to them. Nelson Mandela: ‘No-one can take from me the most essential freedom: the freedom to decide how I will respond to what happens.’

    1. Mike Lehr

      Marilyn, regardless of what definition you use, there are downsides to positivity and optimism. That is the way things work in life (YinYang).

      Unfortunately, when we try to show people the downside of concepts they hold dear, they often fall back on definitions: “You are not defining it right, Mike. That is not really positivity, optimism, leadership, authenticity, extroversion, psychopath [FILL IN BLANK] etc.” Positivity and optimism are neither inherently bad nor good. Context, perspective, personality and actions influence whether they are either.

      In other words, positivity and optimism, when carried to extreme, become as the post describes. It is like saying that a hammer is no longer a hammer if it’s used to kill rather than build. Similarly, when despots use positivity and optimism as weapons for persecuting those who speak negatively and pessimistically about them, it is still positivity and optimism that is doing the work.

      For example, Mandela’s quote has several perspectives that render in ineffective. First, he assumes we have conscious control over all our feelings, thoughts and actions. That is not true. Almost all of those are predetermined by our personalities. If we understand and appreciate someone’s personality well, we can come very close to predicting her responses within an acceptable margin of error. For example, if you grasp a person’s personality, you can reasonably predict her solutions to a problem without knowing the problem if you know the range of solutions available to her.

      Second, Mandela’s quote deserves context. He did not mean how we thought or felt but about how we acted. Essentially, he is saying, “We are free to act in accordance to what we feel is best for us.” No one can stop us from doing that. Now, by adding this qualifier, Mandela is correct. He needed slogans that could move people to believe that their current state was not an act of God. Let’s not confuse what Mandela needed to move people and what he actually thought life was about. In any communication of life’s nuances to people, there is a need for simplicity even though it might not be totally accurate in order to get action. Life is far to integrated and complex to explain and expect to get action.

      For example, if someone beats us over the head, Mandela’s not saying we have a choice to feel positive about it. So, if we feel badly about it, it’s our own fault. He is saying that we are free to respond to the hurt we feel and feel good about taking that action. We would not be violating any kind of divine or natural law by doing so. He was trying to overcome the propaganda that most autocratic societies promote to keep the population inert: this is the way it should be, always has been and always will be; so, there is nothing you can do. Give up hope.

      As for researchers, you are right in the tweet you sent. They are not necessarily using the right definition. They are merely using definitions that allow them to prove their hypothesis. That is why we must be smart consumers of science and such research. Often the definitions and controls on experiments and research are designed to facilitate the successful support of a hypothesis, not to reflect reality. That is why any product, once it passes through R&D phase must be field tested to see if it works in the real world. I cite this research because it supports my empirical research of what happens in real life when positivity and optimism are applied extremely or maliciously.

      As always, thank you for your insights, Marilyn.

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