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

Mind Over Matter

When the day is fine, and you hate it to end, don’t you wish you could exert mind over matter, and extend it a few more hours?  Or when your energy is spent, and pain defines your limits, and you feel time is running out – don’t you wish for a way out?  Now, I don’t mean a final exit kind of thing.  Nor the easy solution of popping a pain pill to buy a few hours release.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about those moments when you ask God for help, if you’re a believer, or wish for a helpful God when you are not, and you hear silence, don’t you secretly want to believe in the power of positive thinking?

I don’t believe in magic, so I’m not expecting to twitch my nose like Samantha and rearrange reality.  And since I don’t believe an omnipotent being is listening to our prayers ready to intercede with a helping hand, I’m not talking about supernatural powers.  And I’m not even talking about the power of thought where people believe with right thinking riches will come their way.  No, I’m exploring the subtle effect of the placebo, or why some people don’t get sick during flu epidemics, or why that only 1 person in 20 can lose weight and keep it off, or why some kids learn so much more in the same class as others.

We all know people who overcame extreme odds and won.  We all know about the power of the placebo effect.  We’ve all read fantasy stories where the good witch tells us we had the power all along to go home but didn’t believe it.  Somewhere between the grim reality of fate and the magic of Harry Potter is a realm where the mind has influence.  I’d love to know where the limits of the mind lie.  How come some people can run five day African desert marathons and other healthy people take the elevator to avoid a single flight of stairs?

I’ve always defined my limits by health.  I’ve always felt I had unlimited potential as long as I was healthy.  As soon as I get sick in any way I feel like I’m running up against a concrete wall.  Now that I’m getting older I feel the constraint of many more barriers.  For several years I was constrained by a heart arrhythmia but I finally had a surgical procedure and now I’m better, except that I’ve now got arthritis in a back vertebrae, and maybe a pinched nerve, and pain keeps me from doing more.  Physical therapy is the best my doctors can offer me at this time, but the pain and limitations I live with are ones I wish I could overcome with mind over matter.  I’d like to believe that meditation and yoga could cure my back and leg problems, but is that just being naive?

I always see my limits in terms of biology.  Sleep, energy, disease, age, etc.  Some people define their limits by success, wealth or power.  Others fight habits and impulses that enslave their behavior.  I suppose the young are obsessed with the limits of friendship, possessions, love and sex.  I’m guessing that it is mentally universal that people want to believe they can think their way out of their problems. 

Okay, there are always those people that look for outside intervention, either from God or luck.  I am not concerned with those folks, those who just wait around for providence, fairy godmothers and lady luck.  And yes, I do believe that some people are luckier than others, but isn’t that statistical?  It is possible to flip a coin and get heads 10 times in a row.  Of course, luck can also be proper preparation.

So far in life, I have been lucky, and I’ve gotten past every obstacle of health that has come my way.  I know I’m lucky because I’ve known  so many people that have suffered tragically from birth defects, accidents, disease or horrible degenerative conditions that befall the human body.  Death comes to us all, so our bodies must ultimately fail in some way, we just don’t know how and when.

Now that I’m getting older, each pain, bizarre twinge, weakness, ill feeling makes me wonder if I’ve suddenly received an early warning signal to my doomed fate.  When is a headache due to constipation or an approaching brain tumor?  The last few months I’ve been experiencing numbness in my legs, which makes it even harder to sleep through the night.  Pain in my back, which is under control at the moment, has already forced me to sleep part of the night in bed and part in a chair.  Moving to the chair at 2:30 am feels great to my back that has stiffened up in the bed, but now the chair makes my legs go numb.

If only I could overcome these problems with will power.  I wish through focused thought, by the power mind over matter, that I could heal my body.  The other day I was arguing with a friend who is a professor of counseling psychology whether biology or culture creates most of our behavior.  I was on the side of biology, since I’m a computer programmer, I can understand the idea of biological programming.   My friend argued strongly against that idea.  I asked why.  She said always blaming biology is like making excuses.  Of course, physical health can’t be equated to psychological behavior.  Or can it?

New Age mumbo-jumbo preachers claim realty is all mental.  That’s a seductive philosophy.  It’s wonderful to think we can escape all the evils of life by willing them away.  But how far can such a belief system take us?  Is it our fault if a stray bullet slams into our gut because we allowed ourselves to walk in a slightly bad part of town?  Is my back hurting because I let myself get overweight?  Because the grim reaper eventually harvests us all, does that mean we all mentally accept death in some form?  Do those New Agers go to their death wondering where they made their mental mistake.

We’d like to think that clean living, exercise and a good diet will keep away the doctor.  I know people who never work out and eat whatever they want and never have any trouble with their bodies.  Is that genes or powerful minds at work?

The trouble is, I’m probably wrong in hoping the mind has some degree of influence.  Science shows over and over again this is a cause and effect universe, and that there is an explanation for everything, even though that explanation might not be known to us at the moment.  The New Agers latched onto the spooky world of quantum physics hoping for a gateway to a mystical universe from our purely mechanical reality, but so far atom smashing has revealed none.

In this world, avoiding cavities is only found through the knowledge of dental hygiene and not wishful thinking.  But there’s still that damn placebo effect to deal with.  The placebo effect has even been proven to work for years.  How is the brain tricked?  I wish I knew.

JWH – 9/8/9