OPINION: Is positive thinking really a delusional thing?

Robert Labayen

Posted at Mar 14 2017 02:42 PM

I am almost sure that your Facebook feed is filled with messages and memes reminding you to feel good today because “nothing is impossible,” and “you will see it when you believe it” because you just have to “name it and claim it.”

Positivity messages have become so widespread. We get it from preachers, New Age writers, motivational speakers, coaches, CEOs, HR experts, psychologists and doctors in a deluge of books, articles, DVDs and YouTube videos.

But some authors and experts are not impressed.

Award-winning American author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote this book "Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America." In the book she laments that both spiritual and secular positivity gurus have made Americans believe that “if you expect things to get better, they will.”

Can the mind really attract money?

She is not pleased that the book "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne was a runaway bestseller when Byrne’s claims on the Law of Attraction are based on wrong interpretations of science. Ehrenreich is not convinced that people can attract to themselves money, things or love just by wishing it to happen.

Ms. Ehrenreich noted that American companies paid positivity coaches to make employees focus on the possible rewards instead of bemoaning their low salaries.

She reported that coaches were also used to make laid-off employees look forward to “new opportunities” instead of resenting their former employers.

The “megachurches” were also mentioned by Ehrenreich as institutions that have become like business corporations. She observed that these churches preaching the “Positivity Gospel” have designed their services and sermons to appeal to the needs of “customers” -those churchgoers who choose to be reminded of God’s generosity instead of the punishment for sin. She cited pastor Joel Osteen as among those who regularly advised their flock to “visualize” God prospering their lives.

Can the mind cure cancer ?

When Ehrenreich was being treated for breast cancer, she was unpleasantly overwhelmed by many “think positive” messages along with pink ribbons, pink bears, pink mugs and other paraphernalia meant to make her “feel good.” She felt like a deviant in this community of patients and caregivers. They tried to think happy thoughts of healing when she actually wanted to express anger because, among other reasons, she believed that she got her cancer from a previous medical error.

Ehrenreich researched that the death rate in breast cancer is only the same among the positive thinkers and those who had more gloomy thoughts. She also questioned the methodology or premise of some studies connecting positivity to healing.

She thinks it is unfair that positivity champions make people think they didn’t get healed or didn’t become rich because of their own fault –they did not have enough faith or they attracted bad luck to themselves.

She decries the fact that many positivists deny the existence of real obstacles and real dangers, labelling them as mere “excuses” to one’s success. She preferred that patients were made more alert and aware instead of fully trusting in an imagined guarantee of cure.

Has positivity changed lives ?

Despite the massive positivity hype, Ehrenreich had reasons to believe that it didn’t make America a better and happier place. She cited the fact that anti-depressants are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US. She also reported that the rich got richer while the “share of income going to the bottom 80 percent fell by 7 percentage points” from 1979 to 2007. As it turns out, she observed, the promise of abundance was mostly empty for the “believers” while the gurus flew on their own jets.

She thinks that the sub-prime crisis would not have happened if people were more frugal instead of being too confident in using their credit cards and taking out loans.

Other books that examine the limitations of positive thinking are "The Antidote" by Oliver Burke, "Rethinking Positive Thinking" by Gabrielle Oettingen, and "The Power of Negative Thinking" by Bob Knight, among others. 

What’s better than positive thinking ?

Ehrenreich clarifies that she doesn’t propose negative thinking as an alternative because “it can be just as delusional as the positive one.” She does not agree to “depressed people” projecting “their misery into the world, imagining worst outcomes from every endeavor…”

Instead, she suggests “vigilant realism” or “defensive pessimism,” a term she borrowed from psychologist Julie Norem. It is mostly critical thinking in place of positive thinking. She advises that if we stop looking at things as all-rosy, we will entertain a contrarian point of view no matter how discomforting because “the more information we can gather, the better off we are.”

“The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.”

My own belief on belief

I can agree with Ehrenreich that preachers and gurus have achieved profitable prosperity by telling us what we want to hear.

My scientific mind prevents me from believing that the universe is a genie that grants the most ridiculous wishes. I am more ready to accept what other positivity authors have suggested: you cannot expect money to come to you unless you have created anything of value.

When I pray, I don’t say “God, send a million to me.” Instead, I thank him for giving me talents that allow me to create things that people pay for. But for now, I keep an open mind. After all, God and the universe are like oceans that cannot fit into our bucket-sized mind. Even Einstein knew only very, very little about them.

Why think positive when humans seek negativity?

Positive thinking may not solve our problems like a miracle. But I believe it is useful. Our biology needs it.

Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, wrote the book "The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry." She pointed out that the mammal brain, our brain, is wired to constantly scan the environment for threats. That’s a throwback to the caveman era when someone could be killed by a wild animal, falling rocks or a raging river any time. When we feel happy, positive brain chemicals metabolize quickly and we go back to negative mode. 

Self-preservation was the reason why our negative feelings of fear, anxiety, anger were more intense than positive ones. Those instincts are still with us in these modern times. Our negativity bias, Dr. Breuning asserts, makes us overlook the many good things around us. We deprive ourselves the experience of having a good feeling.

So, I think Ehrenreich shouldn’t worry that positive thinking will make humans deny the existence of threats and unpleasant things. We are naturally conscious of these realities. For example, even though we received praises from a hundred people, one nasty comment will be enough to ruin our day!

I think that a few workshops on positive thinking will enhance our life but not entirely erase our mammal threat-seeking instincts ingrained over many centuries.

Psychologist Rick Hanson, in "Hardwiring Happiness," reported that the negativity bias has all of us stressed out during the day. That’s why road rage can be easily provoked. Hanson advised that we should ease the stress by being grateful for happy things that happened during the day.

In the book "The Art of Happiness," psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler shared that the Dalai Lama’s counsel is for us to replace negative feelings with positive ones. If such Buddhist teaching preceded the “positivity fad” by many centuries, maybe optimism is truly a human need.

I think positivity churches are growing because people are already so frazzled during the whole week, they don’t want to be reprimanded on Sunday. I think the positivity mania spread in the corporate world because work is so stressful, we can’t tolerate more negativity by officemates. Seeking positivity as a relief is a natural human need in these stressful, unpredictable times.

Overcoming Fear and Worry

Optimism may not eliminate risks but it can erase our fears and make us enjoy life more. For example, I used to dread flights. Now, I visualize the exciting destinations instead of having morbid thoughts. I trust that no matter how optimistic the pilots and the mechanics are, they will still check anything that may go wrong.

We cannot predict events. Being pessimistic can be bad for our health. When we worry, the brain prioritizes supplying resources to the body parts used in fighting. They leave very little for the immune system and the repair of organs.

That’s why Jesus asked “Can any of you, by worrying, add a single moment to your life span?“ Likewise, the Buddhist teaching on mindfulness advises against worrying about the future.

Hope, Healing and Survival

In 1914, twenty-eight sailors were marooned in ice, darkness and hunger for almost two years. Just a few years ago, thirty-three miners were trapped in a mining cave in Chile, hundreds of meters underground for 69 days with almost no food and water. In both cases, all men survived. If they didn’t think positive in those obviously hopeless situations, they would have killed one another or gone insane.

Eyewitnesses said that Sir Ernest Shackleton, the 1914 expedition leader, did many things to keep his crew distracted by fun, happy thoughts and the hope that they will get through.

There is false hope and true hope as admitted by Dr. Jerome Groopman in his book "The Anatomy of Hope." He does not believe in giving patients false hopes. He also wouldn’t say with certainty that hope is enough for recovery. But he said that belief in the possibility of a cure encourages patients to undergo painful procedures and endure many side effects. I would count this as a case for positive thinking.

Dr. Groopman also reported about successful cases in which the placebo effect actually worked. A result of positive expectations.

In the book "The Faith Factor," Dr. Dale A. Matthews wrote that “over 300 clinical studies demonstrate one simple fact: faith is good medicine.”

My own months-long battle with insomnia was on its way to depression and claustrophobia. I found the cure in positive thinking advised by both religious people and medical practitioners. (But the details will be for another article.)

Bouncing back

For me, one of the most obvious advantages of positivity is its ability to help us rise from defeat or sadness.

I will not impose my cheerfulness on people who are grieving. I will not underestimate their pain. I will not ask them to look at the bright side if they wish to express anger. But when they are ready to start again, I hope that they will feel optimistic that life can still be great. Finding new zest for life is the common story by people who go from trial to triumph.

I don’t blame motivation coaches for pushing people, those who have failed and those who have been laid off, to the limits of their potential. Some may not become as great as how they visualize themselves to be, but they may reach higher levels of competence.

Success may not be for all. Just like not anyone who goes to college becomes an accomplished professional. Some will fail. But I think that no human being must be deprived of the encouragement to dream and to rise from failure.

We need positivity to mend our broken spirits and to embolden our anxious hearts.

Dr. Breuning wrote that “Our quality of life rests on inventions made by people who were often disappointed during their lives…But they kept taking steps anyway. If humans only did things that got short-run rewards, we would have worms in our intestines and war with our neighbors and die by age thirty. Instead, we have comfortable lives because people who came before us went beyond disappointment.”

Have a great day ! Just being optimistic.

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About the Author:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.