“Think positive” is one of those adages that comes in and out of favor in the therapy room and beyond on a roughly 20-year cycle. We’re coming down from the zenith of another wave on that curve, it seems, and the New York Times is ready, as always, to chronicle the ebb.
A focus on “thinking” as the point of intervention for psychotherapy is as old as psychology itself, and takes the form of variations on cognitive therapy or (more in vogue these days) cognitive-behavioral therapy (“cbt”). Whether administered by a therapist or advocated by a self-help advocate, the interventions are designed to create transformations, both in habits and emotions through changing patterns in thinking.
Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University does the lifting in this editorial (promoting a new book on the same subject). Professor Oettingen’s critique is one of utility: psychological research (including his own) demonstrates that thinking positive about one’s life or a desired future state produces complacency. If I become too satisfied with the positive picture of my future, slimmer self (for example) I’ll be less inclined to do the hard work of getting to that place.
The alternative, Oettengen and other psychologists who study the issue suggest is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with realistic thinking. This so-called contrasting emphasizes the space between what one has and what one desires seems better suited to producing the necessary action for change.
It’s all in your head
I’m unconvinced. Yes, I believe the research results are valid, but as with most research psychology, this laboratory, “objective” approach is a deep distortion of reality. In this case it’s the elimination of the essential variable of what it is to be human that allows the experiments to “work.” In Oettengen’s lab (as in most psychology research labs) the only relevant variables are cognitions (thinking–positive or negative or real or hybrid) and behaviors (weight loss, promotion-seeking, habit changing). If we eliminate all other variables than positive versus negative versus realistic thinking, each applied in variations on the experiment will no doubt achieve measurable results.
What’s the big deal?
Positive thinking has a had a profound effect on our consciousness. Even if you’ve never heard of Normal Vincent Peale, who wrote the wildly successful part self-help manual, part spiritual guidebook The Power of Positive Thinking, it has had significance in your life. Everyone from Tony Robbins to Oprah Winfrey to Joel Osteen has borrowed heavily from its premise: thinking positively about yourself and your future can achieve powerful results.
It’s a part of our daily rituals of fear and grief. How often do you hear around the office “Just try to think positive,” from one colleague to another as a response to the former’s expression of dread to the latter. Or in an interview with a professional athlete recovering from an injury: “I’m just trying to stay positive.”
My beef with positive thinking isn’t the “positive” half of the word pairing at all. Positivity to me, seems, worthy of a good deal of attention and while thinking is a very real part of our emotional lives, thinking that changing thinking is the path to prosperity (of whatever sort) only makes sense in a psychology lab at New York University.
You’re a system
Or, more accurately, you exist as part of a broader system. Both internal to you and external to you, all of your parts are connected to all of your other parts and to the world in ways that you couldn’t possibly break down into a set of discrete variables. When we talk about “thinking” (cognition to the psychologist) we are really talking about something quite artificial. Why? Not because thinking isn’t a real phenomenon, but because thinking and doing and feeling (and breathing and walking and…) aren’t really separable. There’s no such thing as thinking in isolation from everything else we do.
You can only change everything
The strategy that’s implied in the “change your thoughts, change your life” approach is one that ignores so much of the complexity of our lives, our habits and our feelings. The suggestion is that we go in, as with a scalpel, and focus on making changes in particular thoughts or thought patterns and everything else will flow from there. Sometimes that happens, but more often than not we’re vulnerable to a sort of “Biggest Loser” effect: Contestants are taken away from their lives (where unhealthy eating habits formed, and were supported) and put in a tightly controlled environment and (notable) filmed (which adds to the incentive to work the program). But then most contestants return to the environment where they came from which, by and large, hasn’t changed. The result? Many gain the weight back, while others confront new problems, including eating disorders.
So what’s the real problem with “positive thinking”?
Thinking is just way too small. Or, more accurately, it really just isn’t possible to only change how we think. We have to relate to change holistically rather than buying into the myth that there’s some small, discrete part of our selves that we can tweak and produce change in our lives. If we want to have better lives, we’ve got to think, do, create, build, feel, eat, sleep believe positive. We’ve got to do bigger things than can be measured in a laboratory.