A Primer on Positive Thinking

Is there something negative about positive thinking? Judging by the titles of some books and the headlines of some newspaper and magazine articles, I can easily see how people could become confused. For example, an article in the May 2011 issue of Scientific American plants seeds of doubt with this title, Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? And the July 4, 2009 issue of The Times (London, England) boldly proclaims, Positive thinking has a negative side, scientists find. Repeating positive phrases may backfire when used by the very people who are in need of them the most, a study suggests. Finally, a well written article on Facebook announces, The peril of positive thinking – why positive messages hurt people with low self-esteem.

The three articles were all based on the research of Professor Joanne Wood, which is described in The Times’ article as follows:

“Researchers (Professor Wood`s team) sought to assess how positive thinking affected people with varying levels of self-confidence. They questioned dozens of men and women, measured their self-esteem using the standard psychological methods and then asked them to write down their thoughts and feelings.

“In the middle of the exercise, some were assigned to tell themselves: ‘I am a loveable person’ every time a bell was rung. After the exercise, they were asked a series of further questions to measure their self-worth and optimism. The scoring system ranged from 0 to 35.

“The confidence of those with high self-esteem appeared to have been boosted further by repeating the phrase. They scored an average of 31 compared with an average of 25 for those with equally high self-esteem who did not.

“Those with low self-esteem who repeated the statement scored a dismal average of 10. Their peers with equally low self-esteem who were not asked to do so managed a rather more chirpy average of 17.

“The findings were published in this year’s (2009) Psychological Science journal.

“Joanne Wood, Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and an author of the report, said it seemed that repeating positive statements worked only if it reinforced what the person already believed. “It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most,” she said.

“I think that what happens is that when a low-self-esteem person repeats positive thoughts, all they do is contradict what is there already. So if they’re saying, ‘I’m a loveable person’, they might then think, ‘Well, I’m not always loveable’ or ‘I’m not loveable in this way’. Then these contradictory thoughts may overwhelm the positive thoughts.”

“Professor Wood said that positive thinking might be effective when it is used as part of a broader programme of therapy. ‘But on its own it tends to have the reverse effect of what it is supposed to do.’”

Recapping, we have been told that positive thinking can be harmful by three different sources merely because Professor Wood did a small test of a single affirmation, that wasn’t worded for effectiveness, and which was practiced for an extremely short period. How does this small test lead Professor Wood to conclude, “…positive thinking might be effective when it is used as part of a broader programme of therapy. But on its own it tends to have the reverse effect of what it is supposed to do.”? But my purpose here is not to find fault with Professor Wood, but to point out how stories about possible ‘harmful’ effects of positive thinking develop and flourish. Some authors rail against ‘positive thinking,’ but in the process of doing so, they completely change the meaning of positive thinking.

So, what is positive thinking? Although it can be traced back to ancient times, we have Dr. Norman Vincent Peale to thank for revitalizing it and burning it into our psyche with his landmark book The Power of Positive Thinking, which was first published in 1952. But the question remains, what is it?

It’s based on a simple premise; mainly, we create our lives with our thoughts, (which is a teaching of Buddha as well). In other words, if I spend most of my time harbouring negative thoughts, I will have negative experiences and an unhappy life. On the other hand, if I ‘accentuate the positive,’ ‘walk on the sunny side of the street,’ and look on the bright side, I will enjoy life.

Positive thinking is pragmatic because it works, and negative thinking is illogical because it is self-defeating. It is also helpful to think of positive thinking as any type of thinking that empowers us, makes us stronger, more capable, and better able to cope with and enjoy the adventure of life For this reason, I like to think of positive thinking as expansive and ever growing.

Who gets more done and enjoys life more, the pessimist or the optimist? Hope in the future, faith in ourselves, and enthusiasm about life empower us. Cynicism, doubt in ourselves, and despair about the future dampen, if not crush, our spirit. Isn’t that reason enough to choose to be a positive thinker?

Let’s now consider how positive thinking is possibly expanding. In his 1967 book, New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono coined the phrase Lateral Thinking, which deals with out-of-the-box, creative, or problem solving thinking. What has this got to do with positive thinking? Well, coping and dealing with life’s challenges requires creative and solution oriented thinking doesn’t it? Can you be a positive thinker without knowing how to solve life’s problems? I think not. Therefore, I see Edward de Bono as a contributor to positive thinking.

In 1973, Robert H. Schuller — who was mentored by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale — released his book Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking. In it, he expanded our horizon, urging us to go beyond the obvious and explore the infinite possibilities that await those who seek them. How do we know what new things are possible? Easy, think of the impossible. For if you can think it, you can bring it about. All great inventors are inspired by ‘what cannot be done,’ and have little interest in what can be done. Why should you and I act any differently? And if we are positive thinkers, how can we not act in that way?

A little over 20 years ago, Rosalene Glickman, Ph.D. introduced us to Optimal Thinking. She added a helpful tack to positive thinking by suggesting that rather than merely trying to be better and achieve more, why not aim for being the best and achieving the most possible.

And in 1997 Jerry L Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler challenged our thinking even further with their delightful book Paradoxical Thinking: How to Profit from Your Contradictions. To take a good look inside the book, click here.

Then, in 2003, James Mapes consolidated many of the great ideas of seekers of sound thinking. Striving to take a quantum leap forward, he aptly named his book, Quantum Leap Thinking: An Owner’s Guide to the Mind. Sprinkled throughout the book are quotations, tips, lists, callouts (boxed text), and QLT (Quantum Leap Thinking) Theorems. I’ll share some of the many theorems here.


If you think the way you have always thought and do what you have always done, you will get the results you have always gotten. Many of you will already be familiar with this maxim, which is widely quoted in the self-improvement field, but it is well worth repeating.

Turning judgment into curiosity opens the channel for learning. We will never know how much we failed to learn because we were too busy judging others instead of being curious enough to learn from them. Hint: whenever we strongly disagree with what we hear, it is a signal that there is more for us to learn; so, at such a time, it would be wise for us to listen with an open mind and actively try to learn something new.

If you can’t see the possibility, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This bit of wisdom was well understood by Robert H. Schuller, which explains why he taught us to be constantly on the alert for and to seek out new possibilities.

Assumptions are the death of possibility. This is clear enough, making further comments unnecessary.

If you believe something is impossible, you have before you a signpost to the possible. This is similar to my earlier comment that if you wish to learn what new things you can accomplish, think of what is ‘impossible.’

Change creates the threat of loss and the threat of loss creates resistance. This is important to understand, for it prepares you for the resistance you will feel whenever you try to change.

Change can occur only after the pain of realizing that current behaviour can no longer be tolerated. This is why addicts may be unable to change until they hit rock-bottom.

In order to create change, you must be consciously aware that pain is often a signal for change. It is wise advice to heed the signals of our bodily sensations and emotions, for they tell us when and how to act (if we listen).

Once a choice is made, all other possibilities cease to exist. You can’t change horses in the middle of the stream, so think before you make your decision.

What you believe determines what you pay attention to. And what we pay attention to determines what we do and what happens to us. If we are unhappy with what is happening to us, it signals that we need to change our beliefs, thoughts, and subsequent actions.

You choose your thoughts moment to moment. Awareness of your power to choose gives you the freedom to choose anew. We all recognize the adage “use it or lose it,” but we won’t begin using our power until we become aware of it.

Commitment makes the invisible visible. We cannot overstate the importance of commitment (the decision to do whatever it takes to succeed).

Sometimes taking a risk involves change. Sometimes taking a risk means committing to remain in your present circumstance. Wise advice. Enough said.

As we have seen, positive thinking evolves along with our understanding of the power of thought and the mind. Let’s not be satisfied with merely being positive, rather let’s embrace the promise of hidden possibilities and awaken to the exuberance of life’s adventurers. I choose to call the thinking that guides me positive thinking. You may choose to call it by another name. No matter. Whatever we call it, let’s join forces and try to make our planet better because of it.

Case Study

A reader writes, “I just read your article on negative thinking and it hit me between the eyes. I am a 53 year old husband of a wonderful wife and a father of 5 fantastic children.

“I had a wonderfully easy life up until 7 years ago. I was making $200,000 a year as a consultant and life was just great. However, after 9/11 my business failed and we had a complete financial ruin. We lost our house, our savings, our cars. It was terrible. Unfortunately 7 years later we are still not back on our feet. My income is based on commissions only and I have failed miserably.

“I have become the King of negative thinking. I expect things to fail now. I have no hope that anything is ever going to get better. It is a horrible way to live.

“I know if I don’t change my attitude nothing is going to get better. Are there some real concrete steps that I can take that will pull me out of this? I have reached a point where deep down I believe everything I try to do will fail. I was never like that before, but with 7 years of failing, it is hard to believe anything will change.”

Answer: Our reader is not alone. Regrettably, in these turbulent times, many are losing their jobs, savings, and peace of mind. Seven years of failing is hard to bear. Under those circumstances, some would succumb to major (clinical) depression. If our reader finds himself entirely unable to cope, I suggest he seek professional help, such as a psychiatrist, counselor, or life coach. If he is not in the grip of depression, but feels too close for comfort, he may find this book helpful:How to Heal Depression,” by Harold H. Bloomfield and Peter McWilliams.

Although our reader is down in the dumps, the fact he wrote to me suggests that he is NOT in the throes of depression. So, my suggestions may offer some help. If they don’t, as I wrote earlier, he should seek professional help. My suggestions will deal with: 1) Things to think about. 2) What he needs to do. 3) Steps he can take.

1. Things to Think about

a) The painful situation our reader finds himself in is really life’s call. Life is urging him to rise above fear and discover his own greatness. You see, every decision he makes is not a decision about what to do, but a decision about who he is. Life has infused him with unlimited potential, capable of taking heroic action. “Rise to the occasion,” life softly whispers. Can you see how this is not a time to brood, but a time to rejoice? Yes, this is that magical moment where you get to prove your magnificence. Laugh in the face of your self-doubt and become the champion you were meant to be. Heed the words of John O’ Donohue, “…you can transfigure negativity by turning it toward the light of your soul.” Someone else once wrote, “Fear is a habit; so is self-pity, defeat, anxiety, despair, hopelessness and resignation. You can eliminate all of these negative habits with two simple resolves: I can! and I will!”

b) Your success can grow only to the extent you do. Are you willing to do what it takes to grow? Your task is not to avoid failure, but to win big. Avoiding failure is playing it safe, and winning big is being courageous enough to do what you fear. You’re not alive now, and you won’t start to live until you step out of your comfort zone.

c) Ambika Wauters writes, “All negativity is an illusion created by the limited mind to protect and defend itself.” Ask yourself, “How do I protect and defend myself with continual failure? What am I gaining by failing? Is it sympathy? But do I want sympathy or admiration? Is it safety from disappointment? But do I want the safety of a canary in a cage or the adventures of an eagle soaring to a mountain top? Is it protection from a hard work? But if I want to spend my days being as comfortable as a cat sleeping in front of a fireplace, I’ll never be a winner. Yet, if I work hard, I’ll end up being very comfortable.”

2. What He Needs to Do

In order for our reader to get out of the doldrums, he needs to feel like he is moving forward and is in control of his life. He will feel this way when he stops brooding and starts acting. It is not what we do, but how we do it that counts, so he needs to act with fiery commitment, raging enthusiasm, and persistent effort.

Some may say:

Don’t look…you might see.
Don’t think…you might learn.
Don’t walk…you might stumble.
Don’t run…you might fall.
Don’t live….you might die.

But I say, whether you risk action or not, you will still die. So isn’t it better to die in the same way you came into this world – as a glorious being. You may die, but don’t let the dream die; live up to the potential that was given to you at birth.

3. Steps He Can Take

a) The first thing our reader can do is become aware of, monitor, and change his thoughts. A good way to begin is by reading You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought, A Book for People with Any Life-Threatening Illness ─ Including Life by Peter McWilliams.

b) An even better book is MIND OVER MOOD: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. I say this is better because it is interactive. That is, you cannot just read through it, but you have to do the exercises before moving on in the book. So, while the book mentioned in the paragraph above is recommended reading for our reader, MIND OVER MOOD is a must for reading, studying, and practicing.

c) We become like the people we associate with. This being so, our reader should make an effort to spend time with positive people. One way of doing so is to join Toastmasters International (public speaking club) or Optimist International (service club). To find a Toastmasters club near you, click here. To learn more about Optimist International click here.

While on the subject of Optimist clubs, here is their creed, which is worthwhile following for all of us.


Promise Yourself:

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

d) Our reader is looking for answers, and since answers are the results of questions, he needs to ask himself many questions. Good questions for him to ask include: “Which is better, a low paying job with an income or a high commission job that never pays because of lack of sales? Isn’t it time to change jobs?” Does our reader understand we can be happy and successful doing ANY job. It is not the job that we have to carefully choose, but our attitude. That is the key to success and happiness. There are no menial jobs, just menial attitudes. What does our reader need to do? The answer is HIS BEST. That is the attitude that leads to success. Mainly, to do our best with what we have at the moment.

e) Our reader can also create his own Winner’s Log Book. It’s simply a journal or diary in which each night he records the answers to the following questions: “What did I do today to bring me closer to success and happiness? What worked and what didn’t? What will I do differently?” Tracking his activities will keep him focused on his goals and reveal the steps he needs to take for further progress.

Remember: Negative thinking is bitter. Positive thinking, better.

I’m sure all readers join me in wishing the reader who sent in his questions great success. Perhaps his questions will help the rest of us to remain focused on our personal success.



Positive Thinking: Find happiness and achieve your goals through the power of positive thought By Gill Hasson

Positive Thinking: 30 Days Of Motivation And Affirmations to Change Your “Mindset” & Fill Your Life With Happiness, Success & Optimism! by Robert Normanhop

Beyond Positive Thinking: A No-Nonsense Formula for Getting the Results You Want By Robert Anthony

Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life by Gary John Bishop

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life By Jen Sincero

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman