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The Myth of Positive Thinking, Part 1

Positive Thinking Really Is a Myth

I would say that I hate to be a spoiler,

but I don’t.

I just can’t see it that way.

I don’t hate the bubble busting notion anyway.  I would rather have you live a life where you actively blaze the trails of most value to you.

Ubiquity of Positive Thinking “Marketing”

I did a few searches over the last few  days. The results are below.

  • Change your thoughts – 239,000
  • Change your thinking – 276,000
  • Positive affirmations – 378,000
  • Positive thinking – 3, 170,000
  • Affirmations – 4,570,000

What “Secret”?

Even worse is “The Secret” at – I am even flabbergasted with this one — 117,000,000. Where I grew up, a secret was something that on ly two people knew, and one of them was dead.  Doesn’t it seem that if there were a secret that actually made people successful – I mean a really simple one – an end to poverty would be in sight.

Alan Watts wrote about what it took to be a guru way back in the 60’s. I recall two moves he mentioned.  First the guru would keep his followers strung out by saying something like, “You’re getting it, but you’re not quite there yet.”  And the requirement for getting there was often to fill the guru’s coffers just a bit more.

Second, similarly, in any of these positive thinking cult orientations, the idea is that if it isn’t working for you, you just aren’t doing enough of it.  Again, often coffer filling would help. Haven’t you ever noticed about these cults, there a few at the top and others just never seeem to quite get there?

I am going to get  into trouble with the positive thinking police, but this whole thing about affirmations and positive thinking and the ‘Secret’ and the ‘Law of Attraction’ is bullshit.  And I’ll probably get in trouble with Google for saying bullshit.

On Affirmations

I was on Twitter and there was a tweet from a coach (who I genuinely hope is successful and happy) that said –

My health, strength and fitness are at optimum levels. I look and feel great.”  — an affirmation, of course.

If there were a person who was ill, and, sadly, looked like crap, and knew it, would saying this change anything?  Sorry, but it would not.  In reality, research shows that the attempt to counteract negative thoughts, images and feelings actually wedges them a little further into the psyche.

I wish it were so simple.

Far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with a positive outlook on the worlds we see.

More power to people who naturally see the world in a positive light.  There are, I venture to say, many like that.  For them, positive thinking isn’t an affirmation; it is how they see the world.  Maybe that’s you. Are the majority of us like that?  When the excrement hits the oscillating blades,  do we all say (to mix a metaphor), “Oh good, lemons, let’s make some lemonade.”?

Speaking for myself, as a self-appointed committee of one, let’s leave that at no.  I am not alone, though. From Dr. JoAnne Wood

But are positive self-statements actually beneficial? In an experiment that will be published in Psychological Science, Elaine Perunovic, John Lee, and I tested this idea. We recruited people to participate in our study based on their scores on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which has 10 questionnaire items such as, “I feel that I have a number of good qualities.” People who scored in the lowest third of the distribution of Rosenberg scores (low self-esteem) and in the highest third of the distribution (high self-esteem) were invited to come to our laboratory, where we randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. We asked participants to either repeat to themselves the statement, “I’m a lovable person,” (positive self-statement condition) for four minutes, or to write down their thoughts and feelings (control condition) for four minutes. Our results indicated that people who were low in self-esteem felt worse about themselves after repeating the positive self-statement. Their moods and their “state self-esteem”–their feelings about themselves at that moment–were more negative than those of lows in the control condition. In contrast, people with high self-esteem did feel better after repeating the positive self-statement, but to only a limited degree.

She goes on to say that positive thinking efforts “despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.” (Bold and italics mine)

Thought Experiment

We don’t have a lot of control over what we think from moment to moment. The proof, of course, is in the puddin’.

For the next few minutes, whatever you do, do not, under any circumstances, think of a yellow smiley face.  Even if you come back and say you did it and had no problem, my guess is you tried to think of an opposite or some other like strategy.  So that little yellow devil was still there lurking in the background.

Positive thinking is not only not the path to Valhalla, it is also unlikely to work as a practice —

Carlin Flora — Psychology Today — “It wasn’t enough that an array of academic strands came together, sparking a slew of insights into the sunny side of life. Self-appointed experts jumped on the happiness bandwagon. A shallow sea of yellow smiley faces, self-help gurus, and purveyors of kitchen-table wisdom have strip-mined the science, extracted a lot of fool’s gold, and stormed the marketplace with guarantees to annihilate your worry, stress, anguish, dejection, and even ennui. Once and for all! All it takes is a little gratitude. Or maybe a lot.”

Or maybe not.

So, now, if I have ruined it for you, what can you do?  First of all, begin to trust your experience before you trust your mind.  If all is well with you; just ignore me and absolutely do not believe a word I say.

I am reading Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, and came across the chapter called Choking on Thought. His premise there is that when a person ‘chokes’ or as said in golf, has a ‘yip’ the problem isn’t negative thinking.  It is thinking too much. Often, when we try not to think, we end up thinking more … and more … and more.

Psychologist Steven Hayes, one of the originators of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or training, as I use it), tells us about the strange rule that exists relating to thoughts and feelings – the more we don’t want them, the more we have them.

If that’s true, the problem with positive thinking and affirmations is that they are an attempt to replace thoughts that we see as negative.  Brains don’t work like that.  When you add more language to the brain — remember now, this is the brain that is already choking on thought – the original thought isn’t replaced, it is added to.  Now there are two thoughts choking and yipping all the way home.

When you are mired in negative thoughts, resistance is futile.  Do you remember those old black and white monster movies; you know, like Frankenstein (with Karloff) or the Mummy (Christopher Lee?)? These monsters didn’t move all that fast, but as hard as people tried, some of them always got caught.  Running from the monster didn’t work then, and trying to escape our demon thinking doesn’t work now.

So, if you can’t escape, what can you do?

This has already gone long, so that will be for tomorrow!

Hint: Success sometimes occurs by going against the brain.

Brain-based Coach

Frankenstein  via Compound Eye – 1st book at Blurb now!

Evil Smily via KaCey97007

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About Mike

Writes for men in transition, interested in personal development, and who are excited or lost when it comes to life and all the possibilities it offers after 50.


  1. maureen says:

    Totally cool! I agree. I've even written on this myself pertaining to goals, the self-help industry, etc. I agree whole-heartedly

    • You’ve got it. The pull in a successful life, which makes sense in relation to how our brains work as well, are goals and values. An old friend used to say that you can’t think your way out of a mess you behaved your way into. Same goes for success. We do success, we can’t just think it.

    • Yellow Smiley Face says:

      “Whether you think you can or you can’t…you’re right!”
      What Henry Ford said suggests that how we think about life and business has a big impact on
      what we get in life and business. How often do you hear yourself say, “I can’t!” ? Every time
      you say “I can’t,” you make it come true. When you say “I can’t,” your subconscious hears it as
      instructions about how things are. Your subconscious is very literal and it follows instructions
      perfectly. ‘You can’t’ becomes the instructions and the subconscious makes it come true. On
      the other hand, if you say “I can,” the subconscious makes that come true.
      The mechanism for all this is the filtering that your brain does so you can exist in time and
      space. At any given instant there are upwards of 20 million bits of information coming into
      your brain. Your consciousness, however can only process about 20 bits. What you think you
      can or can’t do, becomes the instructions to your subconscious about how to filter out the bits
      that won’t get processed. So if your instructions say you can’t, all information, opportunities or
      possibilities to the contrary don’t get to your thinking processes. You won’t notice, understand,
      or remember those bits that get filtered out. You just guaranteed that you can’t.

  2. I would like to agree with you. "I can't" and "I can" are identical in context, random firings of neurons in a brain that is constantly firing neurons. Both are like pop-ups on your computer screen. You can choose to click the button or not click the button. What counts is which direction your feet and hand and mouth take you. Thinking is a tool. When we look through our thoughts, we see the world through them. When we look at the world "through" the filter of thinking, our thoughts begin thinking us. Take a step back and look at them. Are they worth entertaining or not? That's the question.

  3. I must say i do not believe that positive thinking is a myth. but to some it may it be a myth. Because they have not opened up to believing beyond there known belief.

  4. NeuronOutlaw says:

    You are on the right track. Believing what others say is part of the problem. Believing – period – is the main problem. Understanding your experience – now – is the challenge.

    What would happen if you stop for a moment and do just that?

  5. Just happened upon this Post, although that’s not true as I Googled “positive thinking is a myth”.

    That’s a broad and incorrect conclusion; what is more accurate is that we are a combination of our childhood experiences and if these are predominantly negative and not balanced by positive experiences we can frame everything in order to justify our belief that no good can come to us. The effect of these experiences is also coloured by our core birth attitude.

    It’s interesting that the Goal setting and positive thinking Guru’s are all Alpha personalities. Funny that the best mode for meditating is the Alpha mode; seems to me if you don’t have Alpha as part of your makeup then you’ve got a lot of work to do. Alpha’s start out ahead as they already believe they are God so affirming this just strengthens what is already manifested.

    Take this attitude and speak it in front of a bunch of wanna bees and of course you’re going to make a good living; syndicate it on TV and the internet and you’re going to be a squillionaire. Notice how most middle class people are broke and craving more of Maslow’s hierarchy – so your market is huge and your effort is small as you already believe – it’s your birthright.

    The Secret (IMHO) is nothing more than the plagirisation of centuries of knowledge; from the Bible and other worthy authors; this book has single handedly revived the Self- Help Industry and enabled it to rinse and repeat sales to a new generation of followers. The author, a capable and learned film-maker and brilliant contemporary marketer lucked onto a concept and Oprah. I suggest she, again, is a Alpha personality who had mapped out her success from birth. She speaks of her daughter getting her to read a positive book – probably the oft quoted and freshly modernised SGR. I prefer Napoleon Hill, Og Mandino and James Allen. The beauty of Og Mandino was that he was a drunkard and he only had the wherewithal to change when he held a gun to his head – that would unravel a few strands of core belief quickly.

    The rest of us need to forget about Goal setting and affirmations and manifestation and concentrate on changing their core beliefs about themselves. How easy is this – well lets say you were born last and your siblings decide to teach you the sky is red, that is, blue is red. When you go to school and tell everyone the sky is red – well your self image and confidence in others just took a severe beating. Who do you trust?

    Right at this moment you have been tipped upside down and you are worthless to the Community as you are unable to believe anymore with conviction. You have built the belief system one strand of information at a time until it has become a mooring rope constructed of thousands of strands. So now you have to unpick every strand (false belief) one piece at a time. How hard – have you ever tried to stop smoking.

    The only thing thats going to change you is a major event, upheaval or conviction. By all means Goal set, affirm, be positive but nothing will happen until you decide that it is true for you. The desire for the love of another person or people; health or grim prognosis is the only motivator that will bring about the burning desire to change your core belief system for most of us non-alpha’s.

    • Thanks for commenting. The thing I would say in reply is that I agree with you in this sense – core beliefs, core attitudes come from language and our learning histories. We are stuck with both and direct change is damn near impossible. If beliefs, attitudes, feelings, body sensations (BAFS), etceteras are both fixed and fluctuating, what are we left with? The only thing we have success in changing – our behavior. Positive feelings and thoughts are fine when they occur naturally. There is a lot of research that show that when we directly attempt to change thoughts, etc, the old ones actually become stronger. Google Daniel Wegner for many studies on this.

      The Secret I have to say is a pet peeve of mine. On the one hand, I think it is absolute bullshit and on the other, I wish I’d thought of it!

      Take Care

    • It does occur to me that the title of that post could be better. Positive thinking, IMHO, is real. It’s the power that is mythical.

  6. Where is the second part?


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