The Perils of Positive Thinking

In our society we like to believe that a positive attitude will make us a success, that positive thinking will cure our ills, and make us rich.  On last week’s CBS Sunday Morning featured “Just How Powerful Is Positive Thinking” that said belief in positive thought is wrong.  Of, they admitted that people with positive attitudes might get through chemo easier than depressed people, but thinking positive won’t cure cancer.  Then I found “When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work” at Secret Entourage that says positive thinking only works when you have the skills and experience to back it up.  Then over at Huffington Post I found “Why Positive Thinking Just Doesn’t Work.”  If all go-getters have a positive attitude and most fail, the ones that do succeed can believe their positive attitude is what made them a success, but is it true?

We all die, so no matter how positive you are, or how holy, good thoughts and prayers eventually fail – and probably never helped at all.

Now I don’t want this essay to bring you down.   What I want us to do is think about thinking.

When people believe that thinking positive or prayer can cure disease what they are believing is thought can change reality.  When they pray for someone else they believe their thought goes to God and God reaches out and heals the other person.  We know, even without scientific studies that nearly all prayers fail – if prayers succeeded even one percent of the time we’d be living in heaven.  And scientific studies do show that prayers have absolutely no success.

What people believe when they believe in positive thinking is that they have some kind of power to influence reality with their thoughts.  That positive thinking generates healing vibes or creates an aura of success.  If you think about this it’s pretty obvious that if it worked everyone would be rich, successful, happy and healthy.

Obviously altering reality takes more than thinking and wishing.  If willpower could conquer disease Steve Jobs would still be with us.

After Steve Jobs died I watched a bunch of documentaries about him and on the surface you would think he’d be the poster child for positive thinking because of his amazing string of business successes.  And Jobs does give us the answer.  He said if you can see what’s possible you can work to make it happen.

Thinking will let you see what’s possible, but it’s work that makes it happen.

If you have a disease work the hardest you can to get the best medical treatment possible.  If you want to get rich, work harder than anyone else.  If you want to be an artistic success practice for 10,000 hours.  If you want to make great scientific discoveries, work at it like a fiend with relentless concentration.

I’ve dreamed of writing a novel for over forty years.  Finishing NaNoWriMo last month illustrated perfectly the limits of positive thinking.  Working 2-4 hours a day got me finished.  And I only finished a first draft.  If I want to produce a novel that’s worth reading by book buyers than I need to put in 25 times as much work, or more.

Thomas Edition said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” – which I’ve heard my whole life.  I just wished I had learned it’s meaning back when I was seven.  I’d love to think I’ll finish my novel, but I know with perfect certainty that positive thought does me no good.

I’d like to think I can think my way out of my spinal stenosis – but I can’t.  What helps it is physical therapy – even more than drugs.  There are no magic pills either.  I’d like to think I can loose weight, but I’ve been thinking about that for decades and it hasn’t work.  Sometimes nothing works.

It’s not a question of positive thinking but how far can I push myself.  The fascinating question is:  Can I push myself further than I can imagine?

Like Clint Eastwood said as Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” 

All of this is why I love “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany.  It’s a science fiction story about wanting to go further.  It’s hard in life when we see people go further than our own limitations.  The reason why the belief in positive thinking is so universal is we all can see success, riches and abundant health in other people, so thinking it’s possible for ourselves is seductively easy.  To seductive.

And finally, reality is relentlessly harsh.  Some people work their asses off and never succeed.  There’s limit to work too.  There’s limits to everything in this life.  We just have to keep pushing those limits.

JWH – 12/1/11

6 thoughts on “The Perils of Positive Thinking”

  1. I only recently found out about the book “The Gift” and that sort of wish fulfillment garbage. Previously I never thought that positive thinking was anything more trying have a positive mental attitude or keeping an open mind. If you think whatever you want to do isn’t possible either you won’t even try or your attempt will be half-hearted. Or you might not be able to see things or people who could help you. Without the help you might fail or have to work much harder than if you took advantage. You have to be realistic about your abilities and resources, but just trying is the first step (maybe the first step to failure…). But now whenever I’m told to keep positive or hear about positive thinking, I just imagine someone wishing or praying for something and then thinking it just happens without ANY other effort on their part. Injured people or others with terrible problems are often told “keep positive” by well meaning people. I can imagine that not going over well. There is a big difference between attempting a recipe and being that guy who had his skin and hands burned off in a motorcycle accident then years later was paralyzed in a plane crash. Sometimes “gallows humor” helps more than positive thinking. They say as long as there is life there is hope, but I wouldn’t want to just barely survive falling into an industrial shredder. Where75% of my body was ripped apart and I survived only because my eye-socket got hung up on a nail and so MOST of my head and upper torso wasn’t turned into ground-heef. And I wasn’t found until hours later. I’d rather fall in head first, one second of grinding and then blessed nothingness.

    1. I’d even take two or 3 seconds of “NOOOOOO!!!!” sliding down the slippery metal chute head-first and then one second of skull-grinding.

  2. It’s magical thinking. All of these things are just different aspects of that. Hoping real hard will make good things happen. Praying will cause a magic man to fix everything for you. Healing vibes, positive thinking, it’s all the same kind of wish-fulfillment that’s the basis of magic.

    And yes, that’s a great video clip. “Delusion is always a mistake.” I like that.

    I’ve got another favorite quote from Barbara Ehrenreich, too: “Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift”, was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

  3. Have you ever thought about publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog centered on the same ideas you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

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