“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”
– William James
Some people say that positive thinking is nothing but a delusion. It is… to them. Yes, only to them. To those who think that positive thinking is just a fantasy, it is. What we think things are – they are. Our thinking shapes our truth. It is the brush we use to paint our reality. It doesn’t mean though that what we think about something is correct and is the absolute truth. The reality that our brush called thinking painted doesn’t apply to everyone.
To those who think positive thinking doesn’t work, it won’t. They’d better not try it because their efforts are deemed to fail. It’s unlikely though they would try, given the kind of mindset that they have.
Those who consider positive thinking as crap also think of people who embrace it as not attuned to reality. Reality? Whose version of reality have the positive thinkers failed to tune in to? Have the idealists, realists, pragmatists, and existentialists (insert more “ists” here) already settled their disputes as regards the nature of reality? What I know is that the debates on whether reality is absolute or relative have not ended conclusively yet.
It’s so tempting to ask the question, “Is reality real?” Well, I just did but I will no longer explore that topic. Let me just share how Ran Zilca describes reality. He said, “Reality is not outside of you. It only exists in your mind, and you view it through your own unique lens, filtered by your senses, your memories, your mood, and your thoughts. A different person would look through his or her own perspective, and may describe a vastly different reality, as if the two of you are at not all in the same place and time.”
So, nobody should force on anyone the version of reality informed by his or her personal experiences and created by his or her own brand of thinking.
But is it really necessary to run the gamut from classical to contemporary philosophies to discuss and argue the essence of positive thinking? That is tantamount to analysis paralysis. Positive thinking is not an issue to be resolved but a decision to be made. Accept it if you think it works. If not – reject it.
There is no need to argue the rightness and wrongness of positive thinking because it is not a moral issue? Positive thinking does not involve a difference of belief but it is a matter of preference. There’s no moral dispute.
If for example, I chose to be optimistic, hopeful , and cheerful, I am not disagreeing with the pessimists. I am merely exercising my right to decide which mindset I would bear. My decision to embrace positive thinking would not affect the pessimists. It would not harm them. Would it harm me? How in the world could a mental attitude that expects good results and successful future harm the person having it?
Critics better not say that positive thinking has no academic credibility, that no empirical evidence could be provided to prove that it works. It is not true that the proponents of positive thinking have nothing but anecdotal evidence to prove that it works. The critics simply ignoring the latest findings in the field of brain science and are not seeing how practices related to positive thinking, like meditation and mindfulness, have been gaining wide acceptance. There are lots of studies conducted to establish a scientific foundation for this idea.
Evidence proving that positive thinking works are difficult to ignore unless the critics are intentionally turning a blind eye. A website called “The Pursuit of Happiness” published an article entitled “Review of Key Studies on Mindfulness and Positive Thinking.” The said article is a list of links to several studies conducted in the areas mentioned in the title (of the said article).
Simply type “studies on positive thinking” in any search engine and you’ll find a lot of articles and studies conducted about it.
Positive thinking is more than the “Law of Attraction” – the basic idea of the controversial 2006 documentary film “The Secret.” The principle “like attracts like” is not the be-all and end-all of positive thinking. The former is only one of the many ideas associated with the latter.
One strategy that advocates of positive thinking suggest is “fake it till you make it.” The critics call it absurd. But what if it works… the way a placebo drug does. Let people try anything that would get them out of a funk. Anyway, the said strategy is only one of the many strategies available for those who want to try positive thinking. If it doesn’t work – abandon it and try other available methods. Anyway, there’s nobody who really knows it works or not. There’s no harm if one tries it. Remember that Alfred Adler, the Austrian medical doctor and psychotherapist who founded the school of Individual Psychology, developed a therapeutic technique that he called “acting as if,” a strategy that gave his clients an opportunity to practice alternatives to dysfunctional behaviors.
The one thing that is difficult for me to comprehend sometimes is why some motivational speakers are discrediting positive thinking. The only reason I could think is probably they are trying to sell another self-improvement method and the only way they could get the attention they need is to say something negative about positive thinking.
The more we really try to dissect the essence of positive thinking using all the isms of intelligent people as lens the fuzzier it becomes. It is but a simple concept.
In Psychology they simply call it dispositional optimism.
Let’s simplify it further in a way that even the modest of minds could understand. Let’s call it hope.
It is as simple as this – Positive thinking is expecting that good things, rather than bad things, will happen… that success is attainable. Positive thinking is always trying until you get (and you become) what you want. It is a refusal to have limiting beliefs. It is deciding to choose only the positives in the different frames of perspectives.
Don’t get me wrong though. Yes, I have asserted (a few paragraphs back) that positive thinking is a simple concept. But making it work is difficult.
Positive thinking has been misconstrued as just that – thinking. It is not. It is not as simple as you close your eyes, take a deep breath, think about the things you want – money, good health, good relationship, peace of mind and what have you – think you have them, as hard as you could then when you open your eyes you’ll have them in front of you served hot in a silver platter. NO! It doesn’t work that way. That is not positive thinking but rather wishful thinking.
Positive thinking is just a springboard. Nothing happens if a person just thinks and doesn’t act. Isn’t that common sense?
In another article I wrote about positive thinking, I posited, “Positive thinking without positive action won’t work.” A plan of action is required – a plan of action that should be executed and vigorously pursued.
Thinking precedes action. People are (supposed to be) rational beings and whatever decisions they make, whatever course of action they take, they should think about it first. And which would be a better launching pad for the decisions we make and corresponding actions we take – a positive frame of mind or a negative one?
Believing that good things are bound to happen and that success is attainable would lead people to know their purpose in life. If people have no limiting beliefs they will be prompted to define clearly their goals and frame a plan of action to attain them. The process will help them develop self-discipline and become self-sufficient, organized, and focused.
Positive thinking is not as simple as it seems. Let me reiterate that for it to work, a corresponding plan of action is required. And that would entail a lot of hard work, dedication, and discipline.
Actually, the believers and critics of positive thinking are both correct. It works and it doesn’t. Confused? Consider this – “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” That’s from Henry Ford. And here’s from Virgil… “Possunt quia posse videntu” (“They can because they think they can.”)
I gathered in this part of my website the essays I have written about personal growth and development. I want to share the lessons and insights I learned from motivational speakers whose books (and videos on YouTube) have given me the blueprint on how best I could restructure my way of thinking so I could make better decisions in the different areas of my life.
I have been experiencing amazing changes in my life that I started regretting why didn’t I dig into these personal development stuffs when I was younger. I have heard a lot about “positive thinking” and related ideas before but I did not pay attention. But as the saying goes, “better late than never.”
I came to realize that “positive thinking” is but the first step in a person’s journey to a better self and a better life. It’s not the be-all-end-all of personal growth and development. But it all begins in setting a positive mindset. Positive actions should follow. People are in a better position to succeed when they break free from limiting beliefs and debilitating attitudes.
My goal in writing these essays and have them put together in this corner of my website is to help promote awareness on personal growth and development. I am not (yet) an expert in this field. I just want to share the little things I have learned so far and to say that I am so happy with the results I am getting.
How should positive thinking be classified – a science or a philosophy (or both)? Calling it a science would be contentious since critics believe that positive thinking has no scientific credibility. What about philosophy? It could be, if we take into consideration the meaning of philosophy in casual speech. We usually use the term to refer to any set of beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of a person or a particular group of people.
Positive thinking is unquestionably that – an attitude. It is a mental attitude that leads a person to expect good results. It is a system of belief that makes people set positive expectations in all their undertakings in life. It makes them hopeful for the future. The term is synonymous to optimism, hope and cheerfulness. The Collins dictionary focused more on optimism in its definition of positive thinking.
Let’s just say that positive thinking is an idea. Ideas can either be embraced or dismissed. Thus, it is understandable why some quarters are negative about positive thinking.
Positive thinking, with many journalists and academicians ridiculing it, may not be accepted to mainstream philosophy. At best it can remain attached to the field of psychology. It is not that this system of beliefs was not advocated by any of the great philosophers. Buddha’s philosophy is anchored on the idea that “changing one’s thoughts can change one’s reality.”. Perhaps nothing beats the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in advancing positive thinking. The bible is replete with verses that foster hope and optimism through faith. The Christ Himself said “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20.)
Again, those who consider themselves as thinkers, especially if you connect the dots of positive thinking to faith in God, might ask for an empirical evidence, a scientific basis, to accept it as valid and true.
William James , himself a famous philosopher who experimented in mental healing, defends the right to violate the principle of evidentialism in order to justify hypothesis venturing. Such allows anyone to assume believe in God [or anything] and prove its existence by what the belief brings to one’s life. How credible is William James? His work has influenced intellectuals such as Émile Durkheim, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty.
Questions surrounding positive thinking are philosophical, not scientific. Being so, they are said to be foundational and abstract in nature thus treated primarily through reflection and does not rely on experiment. But of course the academicians would not settle for anything less than the product of a scientific inquiry.
What remained as the strongest argument thrown against this idea is – no proof can be provided to prove that it works. The question is, “Can the critics themselves provide a solid evidence that it doesn’t work?” We could go on and say that burden of proof should be on the side of those who are saying that positive thinking is not true.
The usual criticism on books written about positive thinking is that they are full of anecdotes that are difficult to substantiate. On the contrary, not all evidence provided by advocates of this belief system are anecdotal. There were studies conducted to somehow help in building for positive thinking a scientific foundation. Mark Guidi, for instance, identified five (5) scientific studies that prove the power of positive thinking. In his article “How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility”, Hans Villanueva, explained that in 2011, “hundreds of academic papers were published studying the health effects of good things to happen, which researchers call “dispositional optimism.”
But despite all the efforts to establish academic credibility for positive thinking, it will be difficult for this idea to gain acceptance. It is not easy to convince people to embrace this belief system especially with critics vigorously disputing it. Some even resort to “name calling” the advocates of positive thinking.
Others are seemingly even cashing in on their disagreement. They published books discrediting positive thinking. This system of belief may have not been embraced by many but it has become a good read and lot of authors have earned (been earning) a lot from their publications. So, by writing something against it, some authors are hoping to get attention.
There’s one author who presented what he calls as seven (7) biggest myths about positive thinking. Among other things, he said that positive thinkers ignore the world’s suffering.
Positive thinkers do not ignore suffering. They do not deny the existence of problems and conflicts in society. They do not disregard the daily struggles people face. They just want to approach them in a different manner… look at them using a different perspective. What is wrong with that?
Positive thinking simply promotes a new way of approaching all difficulties and challenges in life. It presents an alternative viewpoint. There’s no harm in trying it. It’s not inimical to anyone’s well-being. There’s nothing to lose but everything to gain.
Positive thinking wants people to realize that any phenomena, natural or otherwise… or any of life issues, can be viewed in many angles. There’s a negative or a positive angle… which means things could either be good or bad. Positive thinking does not ignore the bad but rather if offers hope that things would be better if proper actions are taken.
Does that sound harmful? Is it bad to take into consideration what Helen Keller said – “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”?
This system of belief is not passive. Positive thinkers know that they have to take action and the best part of it is that positive thinking requires people to inquire into the nature of their problems using multiple perspectives before deciding on what should be done.
One of the things Rene Descartes explained in “Passions of the Soul” was “the key task of a philosopher is to help people understand and control their passions – that is to become a little less anxious, status driven and scared.” Isn’t this the one of the principles that positive thinking is advocating.
There are some questions that critics of positive thinking need to answer.
What system of belief can you offer as an alternative to positive thinking?
With the system of belief you have, are you happy and successful?
If not, try positive thinking. It might work for you.