The Myth of Positive Thinking

What if you always believed in yourself and your power to do good, if you succeeded at everything and never doubted yourself again, if you dispelled the fear of death in the certainty that your spirit would never die?

Sounds great, right?

Come now, you know there can never be such certainty. You may be a devout believer, but that’s different thing from certainty. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have to believe, would you?

The idea of always-on, positive thinking has timeless appeal. It promises to dispel those inescapable fears that we all share: of meaninglessness, futility, failure and death. Anyone who comes up with answers to those four has stitched together the ultimate sales pitch. That should raise a red flag.

Instead, it sells innumerable self-help books, tapes and lectures. Positive thinking is a thriving business. It’s the virtual snake-oil of the twenty-first century. Of course, to dwell in constant negativity is a bad thing, but the only way to dwell entirely in positivity is through an act of denial that, even if you can manage it, can’t possibly last.

What we need far more urgently than positive thinking is critical thinking. It starts with hesitation — a step back or a deep breath. Instead of just gulping down things that feel good or convenient, question your motives. Once you can do that the sales pitch becomes subject to scrutiny. This doesn’t mean you no longer experience positivity, but that when you do it’s grounded and substantial.

When we experience negativity we want it to go away and never come back. We’re sometimes willing to believe anything in an effort to feel better. In our hearts lurks the unwelcome knowledge that it’s not so simple: that’s the seed of critical thinking. In our gut lurks the urge to shut down the unpleasantness and pretend that everything’s just fine.

Fear is part of our DNA. It’s never pleasant, even when it’s healthy. Facing death doesn’t stop the fear of death. Brushing it under the carpet leaves it free to burrow though our subconscious and wreak havoc, but facing it is sobering. It reminds us to cherish each moment, to make life purposeful. It keeps our priorities realistic. Ultimately, it’s what enables us to love.

Positive thinking presents itself as the modern successor to spirituality, the source of ‘true’ happiness. It looks like it and it sounds like it, but it’s a confidence trick. Instead of taking a little time each day to withdraw from the bustle of life, we’re encouraged to put aside fear and negativity and believe in what we crave most from life. It’s the ultimate consumerism: rather than buying mere stuff that will never make us happy, we’re sold timeless truths that never decay and always satisfy.

The flaw of this approach is that our thoughts are not under our control. They arise in patterns that start to form the moment we open our infant eyes and start making neural connections. We learn to think in much the same way as we learn to walk and talk, through repetition and habit. That’s why thoughts seem to have a mind of their own.

And then there are raw emotions. We all experience them. Unrequited love, the blow of a medical diagnosis and the grief of loss populate all human stories. The feelings they trigger take us over, firmly resisting easy solutions. The momentum of emotional patterns overwhelms even the most convincing logic. Even everyday emotions can take us down. Worry and guilt are rarely reasonable, but we go there routinely — usually against our better judgement.

Critical thinking can’t solve our emotional crises, but it can stop us from compounding our confusion and burying our real feelings by believing in impossible promises. By accepting our negativity and fears we come to terms with them. Believing they can be ‘solved’ is just another form of denial.

So when you hear exactly what you’re hoping to hear, just remember that most things presented to us in these days of mass consumption have been skilfully moulded to our deepest wishes. You’d think with ‘spiritual’ solutions that this would be extremely delicate, subtle stuff, but you’d be wrong. Nothing could be easier.

Beware of anyone with unambiguous answers to those questions that humankind has always found unanswerable. They may be sincere, but that doesn’t make them right.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

14 thoughts on “The Myth of Positive Thinking”

  1. I have never read a self-help or spiritual book that suggests that we can or should be positive all of the time… and I’ve done a lot of reading over the past 20 years.
    What I have learned, is to accept those things in life we’d rather live without, (which means fully accepting our feelings regarding those things, ) but look for the gifts.
    There is no denial in this.
    eg. This year, I have been struggling with health issues that stole most of my energy and left me unable to do many of the things that I love. Instead of being angry, depressed sad, etc. I was able to accept that “this is just how it is. For now”.
    I was able, when feeling very weak to work on art, something I rarely have time for, and what came from that was insight, some real peace, and new possibilities in the form of ideas which I am now acting on that I am almost recovered.
    This “positive approach” was a hell of a lot healthier than “woe is me, how terrible that I am so sick” and as a result, I will see this year as a great one for all of the growth that I have experienced and how it bears fruit in my life.
    This, I believe is what positive thinking is really about, and that is not denying reality at all.

    1. I agree Jenny Ann, that is what good positive thinking is all about, but it also has its mythical side. When I read things like the following, I understand why people come to my workshops hoping to leave their disappointments behind:

      “Think about what you have asked for, and make sure that your actions are mirroring what you expect to receive, and that they’re not contradicting what you’ve asked for. Act as if you are receiving it. Do exactly what you would do if you were receiving it today, and take actions in your life to reflect that powerful expectation. Make room to receive your desires, and as you do, you are sending out that powerful signal of expectation. ”
      —Rhonda Byrne, The Secret

      Don’t you think that expectations like this are the very antithesis of accepting, as you say, ‘those things in life we’d rather live without?’

  2. Thank you for a very thought-provoking reply.
    You are absolutely right that the idea of “positive thinking” your way to everything you could ever want is not what positive thinking really is all about. In fact, I would guess that the last thing any of us ever need, is everything we ever wanted. That didn’t turn out well for King Midas. 🙂 I suspect that often, what we think we want is not at all what we need.
    I stand happily and peacefully corrected.
    Thank you. I will be sure to visit here often.

    1. Thanks Jenny Ann. The other book I mentioned, by Robin Sharma, is somewhat less shameless, but it’s a mishmash of good old-fashioned insight and wishful thinking. Sadly, the shortest way to a best-seller is to figure out what people want to hear, and tell them just that.

      To be fair, forty years ago I swallowed many a book like this hook, line and sinker and still found my way through the murk. Sometimes, it’s more important to be energized than to be right, but we sooner or later have to go clear. Can’t let it pass without comment.

  3. Oh my, what Rhonda Byrne seems to be advocating is not positive thinking but wishful thinking, thinking that is not that different from the belief that God will give you what you pray for, as long as your faith is strong enough.

  4. I found this very refreshing to read, because it didn’t deny positivity at all but rather the myths promoted around it. I find it hard to be told that if I believe hard enough I will get what I want. With 7 billion of us, the odds are that if this were possible it would lead to unprecedented conflict….

    1. That’s the worst of it Viv. There’s a germ of truth in the notion that we get what we wish for, but the assumption that we should get what we want shows remarkable ignorance of human nature.

  5. This is great, and parallels a post I wrote a while back in which I made up a new Law (the Law of Authenticity) to go along with the Law of Attraction. After years of trying to stay positive and feeling like a failure for not being able to sustain it, I just got tired. I realized that being real was more important than being positive. And that being positive in an authentic way means being willing to experience the entire spectrum of human emotion in an authentic way. There’s definitely a fine line between experiencing and identifying, between allowing the difficult feelings and wallowing in them. But part of our job as humans in relationship with God is walking those fine lines and getting better at letting Him show us the way.

    Thank you for your insight and perspective!

  6. Stephen, Stephen, Stephen

    Your blogs are pushing the right buttons in my brain, CONTINUOUSLY sir.

    Positive thinking & Nihilism are conflicting to say the least, and I have practically chosen the later as it works perfectly with my present state of being, (pleasantly surprised, never disappointed), I am not a person that lives for the weekend or my 2 weeks vacations; what of the remaining 80% of life?

    Critical thinking is not really for everyone, as it has dire consequences that one should be mindful of – writing one’s own life manual is really tenuous , ask any existentialist.

    My mother is a fervent Christian that is always on my case to pray. Now why would I get out of my way to change her lifelong perspective on the final steps of her finality to offer her nothing better (from her angle).

    Again, by choosing a methodology, you are giving up on potentialities, yet it is impractical not to set a pattern of regularities to follow in life, otherwise, complete “Entropy” sets in easily. I chose critical thinking and added an extra dash of cynical thinking to alleviate the workload, as critical thinking can easily engross a ponder-err in an abyss of no return, especially with our human psychological shortcoming, i.e. when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail.

    Cynicism injects a sense of maturity in the juvenile questioning we cannot seem to avoid, optimizing the questioning to less redundancy and time wasting.
    Love William James and his psycho/philosophical approach to life. If something APPEARS to be working, apply it but do NOT believe it emphatically as the world, experience, time and matter are in a flux; therefore rules are changing all the time.

    Pretending to control the uncontrollable (as simple as our thoughts prove the point) is a recipe for disaster, as our insecurity becomes indirectly the source of our suffering; when things were not under our control in the first place. Wisdom after all is the realization of our limitations no?
    Critical thinking + cynical thinking = Practical thinking, which makes positive or negative thinking inescapable but not indispensable.

    1. Hey Ralph: Hm. You have more ethics than I usually associate with nihilists.
      I’ve been thinking more about critical thinking, and realized that there is logically critical thinking and reflectively critical thinking. The latter gives more leeway for allowing psychological states to enter into one’s thinking. For example, viewed as a logical explanation of the universe, I have trouble believing in God, but used as a metaphorical story that answers human psychology and doesn’t need to be taken as an objective fact, I find God a useful, even heartwarming device. I think I’ve mentioned before how my mother used to wish me God Bless, and how that phrase was a clear vehicle for her love.
      Also, the term cynicism rings a negative note in my ear that I can’t really associate with your thinking. Would skepticism not be a better word?

  7. I work for the Social Services welfare division and I see countless people come in and out of the doors. Some of whom I only speak to once or twice. Everyone is in great need and most are living with mere subsistence at a poverty level.

    One client I met with clearly came from an upper class background as have I. They were dealing with great losses in addition to major health issues and the individual kept trying to keep up a good “face.” and failing miserably. Finally they said to me before we parted way, “I never dreamed I would be poor.” in a deep and gut wrenching way. I could tell that they were once a “positive thinker” and were having a hard time letting go of its toxicity.

    Yes, positive thinking is a toxic thing. Too much and we feel as if we are entitled. It takes a lot of energy to maintain that state of being and in order to do so, we forgo and forget who and what we are and where we came from and develop a false image of ourselves. It happened to me and I have seen it happen to others.

    Being free of positive thinking has freed me to be present with life in all its colors. In this there is a true sense of happiness and I am never drained by being around people with serious problems in life.

    Thank you for an honest and “Naked” post about a myth which needs to be dismantled.

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