A few weeks ago, on TV, I watched Boris Johnson using ‘positive thinking’ language in his maiden speech, and during ‘PM Questions’, in the House of the Commons. Boris’s ‘language’ is based on common positive thinking philosophies that have permeated Western society for the last 100 years claim that mere visualization is the key to succeeding and achieving anything that you want. And that the only thing that stops you from achieving happiness, good health and wealth are your negative thoughts and to succeed you must block or ignore them.
In my new book ‘Positive Thinking – How to Create a World Full of Possibilities’ I try to provide a different, better and more realistic understanding to positive thinking. However, I do think is very important to explore where the idea of thinking only positive thoughts and blanking negative ones comes from and potentially dangerous outcomes it could create.
The Positive Thinking Movement of the 20th Century
In 1937 Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich, a book that has reportedly sold over 15 million copies to date. The key lesson from this book is that the material universe is governed quite directly by our thoughts. By simply visualizing what you want out of life, those things and more will be delivered to you. Especially if those things involve money
In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published his book The Power of Positive Thinking. His core argument is that by using the power of focus and believing in success will overcome any obstacles in your life. No matter how insurmountable they may seem, there is no problem in your life that cannot be overcome by the power of positive thinking.
What is very frightening and dangerous, is that Donald Trump is a huge fan of this type of Positive Thinking also. Peale’s, and his book, had a huge impact on the Trump family, especially Trumps father and Trump himself. Peale was the Pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which Trump attended with his family when he was growing up.
More recently, in 2006, Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret promotes that you have the ability to be whatever you want to be. And that if you send out good thoughts and intentions to the universe, the universe will give you good things in return. She says positive thoughts attract happiness, and conversely, negative thoughts attract bad decisions and fuel existing worries and negativity. Bryne claims that focused concentration combined with positive thinking will lead to happiness and wealth.
All of these authors, and many others, subscribe to basically the same thing – think positive things, visualize the success that will make you happy, wealthy and you will achieve anything you want.
Now, there is some merit to some parts of this type of ‘Positive Thinking’ For example, in 1960, Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone published Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude where Hill and Stone promoted the same idea as Peale’s book. They coined the term ‘positive mental attitude’ (PMA). Today, there is a lot of scientific evidence from well-respected psychologist and scientists that having a positive mental attitude can provide a wide range of health and emotional benefits.
However, the essence of these approaches is to deceive yourself by denying (or ignoring) reality. They propose that one should block out challenges and think and visualize only positive outcomes to solve everything. This means that when you are feeling sad, anxious, depressed or angry, you should intercept all negative thoughts with positive ones.
They advocate repeating affirmations which are positive statements to help you overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. They claim that by repeating these often, and believe in them, you will start to make positive changes.
All of this, for me is a dangerous game to play, where there is the potential opportunity for the vulnerable, those going through difficult times and those with genuine health issues, to become easy prey.
Look at the Evidence
There is now many academic and scientific evidence that demonstrate how practicing positive thinking in this way can actually be bad for you. Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist, Susan David has done a lot of work in this area. In her book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, David argues that forcing positive thoughts won’t make you happy. David claims that avoiding negative emotions by either blocking them or trying to avoid them can do more harm than good.
In 2014 Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, published her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Oettingen’s research showed that in the short term positive thinking is beneficial, but over long periods of time it saps motivation, prevents us from achieving our goals, and leaves us feeling frustrated and stuck.
Furthermore, Over the last 20 years or so, a new branch of psychology has emerged, Positive Psychology. It originates from the University of Pennsylvania with Martin Seligman, who is a Professor of Psychology. Since it begun in 1998, thousands of new research articles and books on the subject have been written, several new academic journals published and an international professional association, the International Positive Psychology Association (IAAP), have been established.
In essence, Positive Psychology is the study of what makes life worth living. To push this description further, positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour with a focus on strengths as well as weaknesses , building the good in life whilst repairing the bad, and developing the lives of ordinary people better, whilst making those who are struggling more fulfilled.
The Positive Psychology movement and some of their ideas have been instrumental in helping me to rethink the true meaning of Positive Thinking that I am promoting in my book. I would really encourage people to examine some of the claims of the positive thinking philosophies that have permeated the 20th century, as two of the most powerful men in the world seem to be following their teaching.