Positive Thinking

So, December is proving to be a terrible month to do an anything “of the month”, but I’ve been trying to fulfill my intentions to read up on the subject of positive thinking, and to inform myself on the evidence for its efficacy. I hope to go more in depth at what science says about positive thinking, but for now here are some of my initial thoughts on the topic.

When I told my husband that I would be doing positive thinking as my skeptical topic of the month, he thought it was a little bit strange because of his experience as an athlete. He plays and coaches hockey, so he’s familiar with the effects that a positive attitude can have on the outcome of a game. If your team is convinced that they’re going to lose, they aren’t going to over-exert themselves to try in futility to score. It’s easier for the players to get over their own insecurities and to play their best if they’re feeling confident.

I was an athlete myself back in my highschool and university days. I was a competitive swimmer, and my best event lasted less than 30 seconds. I had to be positive about my training and abilities, otherwise I would get caught up in making sure my hands were positioned correctly or making sure I didn’t breathe too often. But here’s the thing, no amount of positive thinking would have allowed me to go faster than I was physically able to go. If I hadn’t worked hard enough in practice I couldn’t count on my optimistic brain to push me into the lead. I could visualize myself springing from the blocks the moment the gun went off, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I had terrible reaction time.

Thinking about something doesn’t make it happen, no matter what Oprah tells you.

Out of curiosity I Googled “Positive thinking can”, and here are some of the results that came up:

·       Help you feel better, longer
·       Reduce stress
·       Ease back pain
·       Change your life
·       Increase your wealth, health and happiness
·       Help you attract success
·       Help children feel confident
·       Help you lose weight
Etc…

How can thinking possibly do all of this magic? I have back issues myself, and let me tell you no amount of positive thinking is going to dull that sharp pain like loads of ice and an anti-inflammatory. Though I might be able to distract myself from the pain by thinking about how annoying Deepak Chopra is…

Positive thinking may be helpful in some of these instances. Being a positive person might make people want to be around you, which will increase your chances of having a friend that can help you find wealth or success. But looking at websites and videos that promote positive thinking make it seem as though if only you start to think more positively you’ll suddenly find yourself in a beautiful green meadow with a big blue sky and rolling clouds, basking in your own success while you spin around with your arms in the air in loose, white clothing.

Google Image search results for "positive thinking"

Thoughts aren’t magical. Conjuring something up in your mind isn’t going to make it happen. Positive thinking isn’t going to help you pass that test unless you study. A good attitude won’t shrink that tumor. Optimism won’t give you the money you need to buy your dream home.

Yet there’s an entire industry out there of people who want to sell you the idea that you can get anything you want by sending your positive thoughts out into the universe. On the surface it’s a nice idea. Just be positive! Your dreams will come true! But what really disgusts me about these ideas is the implication that if good things don’t happen for you it’s your fault.

Terminally ill? Maybe you should have a better attitude. Didn’t get the job? Keep sending those positive vibes and you’ll get a job eventually. Depressed? Well maybe you should smile more.

This is what protects the cult of positive thinking: it’s immune to criticism. If it doesn’t work for you it’s because you weren’t doing it right.

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6 Responses to “Positive Thinking”


  1. 1 Mom December 8, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    You are right Lindsay, you have to put in the work! After that though, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to have a positive attitude (as opposed to a negative one) that your efforts will indeed produce the desired outcome?

  2. 2 Chelsea December 10, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Positive thinking in regards to sports and other goals helps because it motivates you to act. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and there are studies that show positive thinking working in that way (there’s a few in my social psych textbook if you want citations). But it’s obviously not going to work if you think that all you have to do is sit around and THINK POSITIVELY. It’s a motivating force, that’s it.
    I have a challenge for anyone who believes in The Secret: Quit your job, sit at home all day every day, and just THINK about winning the lottery. Or about your dream car showing up in your driveway. Or whatever your goal is. Never leave home, just put all your effort into really VISUALIZING it, because apparently that’s what you have to do to make The Secret work. If you do this, then you should get whatever you want, right?
    So why does anyone who believes in that crap even bother working? They must not be as confident in its abilities s they claim to be.

  3. 3 The Pick Man December 10, 2010 at 10:14 am

    I am so glad that you dealt with this subject. I voted for it in your poll last month. From then on, daily, I sat down and wished. Wished very hard that other people would vote for the same thing. And, *Bingo*, here it is!

    I jest, of course. Neither wishing, hoping, praying nor positive thinking will have any affect on anything other than the one who wishes, hopes, prays or thinks positively. It was when, as a Christian, I realised that was true regarding prayer that my belief in the existence of a god began to disappear. The disappearing process continued until, like the Cheshire Cat, all that was left was ‘his’ smile. (Although, according to the Old Testament, so beloved by Christians, it is more likely that it was a frown that remained.)

    I voted for this subject because many years ago I chose to adopt what I thought of as ‘positive thinking’ and was interested to learn what might be said about it from a skeptic’s point of view. I had heard of ‘The Secret’, and its supposed powers, but it had not occurred to me that this sort of thing was being seen as synonymous with positive thinking as I knew it. (What a sheltered life I lead!)

    When considering positive thinking, as with most other subjects, it is well to define what we mean by the terms we use. Otherwise thinking can become woolly. In your post you use ‘positive thinking’ in two different ways. In my opinion, for the sake of clarity it is better to use two different terms.
    • Positive attitude. Positive attitude is about a state of mind that looks for and expects good and favourable results. You refer to this when talking about your husband’s hockey coaching; although, the example you give illustrates negative attitude.

    . . . he’s familiar with the effects that a positive attitude can have on the outcome of a game. If your team is convinced that they’re going to lose, they aren’t going to over-exert themselves to try in futility to score. It’s easier for the players to get over their own insecurities and to play their best if they’re feeling confident.

    In your next paragraph you move into the other aspect of positive thinking that I would refer to as:
    • Magical thinking. Magical thinking encompasses the idea that there is the possibility of the mind having an effect on the physical world around us. This is one of the claims made for such schemes at ‘The Secret’. You touch on it when you say,

    . . . here’s the thing, no amount of positive thinking would have allowed me to go faster than I was physically able to go. If I hadn’t worked hard enough in practice I couldn’t count on my optimistic brain to push me into the lead. I could visualize myself springing from the blocks the moment the gun went off, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I had terrible reaction time.

    (Making sure your hands were positioned correctly or making sure you didn’t breathe too often was, I think, about developing swimming technique and probably had little to do with either positive or negative thinking.)

    You are absolutely right in saying,

    Thoughts aren’t magical. Conjuring something up in your mind isn’t going to make it happen. Positive thinking isn’t going to help you pass that test unless you study. A good attitude won’t shrink that tumor. Optimism won’t give you the money you need to buy your dream home.

    To refer to “the cult of positive thinking” is, in my opinion, a mistake. The reason for aiming at clarity is that it would be a big mistake, and a disservice to many people, to throw the baby out with the bath water. Many are stuck in a negative mind set that can be changed in a way that will enhance their life experience. The development of a positive attitude (my initial understanding of positive thinking) should be encouraged. It is not a case of denying reality rather it is seeing that there are more rewarding possibilities.

    It is the magical thinking as expressed by proponents of ‘The Secret’, and others, which needs to be exposed as the dangerous mumbo-jumbo that it is. I was amused to see that such ‘wisdom’ claims to be “drawing from fields as divergent as quantum physics, metaphysics, psychology, and religion.” Need any more be said? ‘Quantum physics’, wonderful! Why not throw in crystals, pyramids, a blessing from the Pope, and the rest for good measure?!

  4. 4 The Pick Man December 10, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Apologies. I recognise, upon re-reading, that the negative remark about the hockey team is wrapped with a positive beginning and end.

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