Aug 14, 2008
Pollyanna On Ecstasy: Why Positive Thinking Just Doesn’t Work
Note: Please read this entire post before you decide to flame me because you like positive thinking
Tim Brownson left a great comment on yesterday's post about the importance of believing in your ability to change your situation:
Beliefs certainly do drive action, but what drives beliefs? Thoughts drive beliefs ... that is where positive thinking can help by undermining a negative, disempowering belief system.
I’m not disagreeing with what you’re saying - in fact I agree with it, but negative self-limiting beliefs are a symptom and not the cause of faulty thinking.
You don’t have to look like Pollyanna on ecstasy and live in complete denial to benefit from looking on the bright side of things. The start point is subtle changes of thinking and moving those beliefs into doubt and then from there into disbeliefs.
The Ugly Truth About Positive Thinking
Tim says there's value in "looking on the bright side of things." He's all kinds of right on that one. But while that might be some people's definition of positive thinking, that's not what I'm talking about in this post. What I'm taking a hard line on is the mainstream definition, one that's been given a big boost by what Clay Collins calls The Cult of Abundance, all fueled by the hype behind The Law Of Attraction. For far too many people who have purchased The Secret and bought into the madness therein, a twisted version of positive thinking becomes installed:
"If I just think about good things, good things will happen! Yippee!"
Ok, I admit I added that "Yippee" part. Humor me.
The danger of the Law of Attraction and "positive thinking" is that it fuels the notion that you don't have to do any work to make things happen - it's magic! (Well, techncally, it's QUANTUM PHYSICS. My bad.) If you want more success, or money, or whatever, just think real hard on it, and poof, a genie will make it happen.
Do you think I'm stretching it? Watch this video from the author of The Secret. There is, in fact, a genie. (To be fair, if you miss it, it might be because an avalanche of money falls over you in an earlier scene.)
Don't fall for this crap. If you take all the pseudo-science out of The Secret and get to the real science, you'll see this mathematical truth:
"But wait, Dave!" you may say. "I tried the law of attraction and it worked!" I'll tell you why it worked tomorrow, but it ain't because of quantum physics. Stay tuned.
A "Closer" Definition Of Positive Thinking
For many of you the phrase "positive thinking" is linked to Norman Vincent Peale, the author of "The Power of Positive Thinking." Ok, he wrote a book on the damned phrase, let's see what he has to say about it:
"Positive Thinking is about training yourself to see the world from a whole new perspective and utilizing your fundamental capability to produce desired outcomes with positive, realistic beliefs and thoughts. It is based on the scientifically-proven fact that thought has a direct effect on feeling which, in turn, had a direct effect on behavior and performance. Therefore, if you think positively you will get positive results, if you think negatively you will get negative results." (taken from The Peale Center's official website)
Hmm. I like that better, especially the bold part. In this definition, thought has nothing to do with genies, avalanches, or being a "money magnet." No quantum physics here. Just the idea of "Thoughts drive feelings, and feelings drive action." Can't argue with that.
However (and this is a 'however' that deserves to be in red), I can't buy that last sentence. Positive thinking will not guarantee positive results. How many times have you been sure of something and failed? And on the opposite side, how many times have you been sure you were going to fail and - oops - you succeeded?
The bottom line is, thinking does not make things happen. Making things happen makes things happen. It's all about action.
A Better Definition Of Positive Thinking
Since it's all about action, let me throw this definition of "positive thinking" at you:
Positive Thinking: Consciously choosing thoughts that produce the positive feelings that make you want to take action.
If you purposefully choose to look on "the bright side of life," as Tim put it, you are choosing to focus on thoughts which boost your mood because they are based on facts, not bullshit. As Tony Robbins once said, if you look at your garden and say "there's no weeds, there's no weeds, there's no weeds," those weeds will take your garden. But if you say to yourself, "Wow, it's pretty cool that I have a garden - and if I take care of it will look great," you might just take action.
When you believe your actions can make a difference, you're more likely to follow through on taking those actions. "Looking on the bright side" means reframing the situation in your mind so that it makes you want to take action rather than feel sorry for yourself.
Even Better: Realistic Thinking
People have called me an optimist over and over again, but I'm not an optimist at all. I'm a realist. In reality, there is almost always something you can do to improve a situation. In reality, most of our problems are not the end-of-the-world that we make them out to be. In reality, we can get off our asses and do one little thing today to turn the tide. In reality, we may feel like absolute crap and have no motivation, but realistically that doesn't mean we don't have resources. In reality, we can find someone to talk to to snap us out of our funk - and if we can't find 'em locally, somewhere there is a website, blog, or forum where we can find someone who we can relate to.
There's no such thing as pessimism - only being unrealistic. When you catch yourself being unrealistic, kick your own ass and start thinking realistically - start seeing the world as a place full of resources we haven't tapped simply because we haven't overcome our self-doubt - and you might just find the motivation from within to take positve action. And in the long run, you're much more likely to get what you're looking for.
And you don't even need a graph for it. (Or a genie.)
PS - Realistically, you'll thank yourself later if you take a second right now and subscribe to this blog. Or if you've already done that, join the Rock Your Day newsletter. It's genie-free stuff you can actually use.