On Positive Thinking


How should positive thinking be referred to – a science or a philosophy (or both)? Calling it a science would be contentious since many 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 – 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 it 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 foundational and abstract in nature thus done 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 thinking does not ignore suffering. It does not deny the existence of problems and conflicts in society. It does not disregard the daily struggles people face. It simply promotes a new way of approaching all those difficulties and challenges. It presents an alternative.

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.

This system of belief is not passive. It requires people to inquire into the nature of their problems using multiple perspectives before deciding on what should be done.

The problem with the critics of positive thinking is beyond their criticism, they cannot offer a better alternative.

One of the things Rene Descartes explained in “Passions of the Soul” was “the key task of a philosophy was to help people understand and control their passions that is to become a little less anxious, status driven and scared”… the very principles that positive thinking is advocating.


%d bloggers like this: