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The Evolving Nature of Positive Thinking

Is positive thinking positive or is it negative? That is, is it helpful or harmful? 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, one book is entitled, Illuminate: Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. The author's thesis is don't run from, supress, or hide problems, shine light on them; face them! But isn't that what positive thinkers do? The author explains what he means by illuminate: "It's about seeing negative issues in a positive light." Isn't that a definition of positive thinking?

It may be interesting to see how a theory that "positive thinking is bad for you" develops, spreads, and mutates. 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 they completely change the meaning of the subject they argue against.

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 us.

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