How Positive Thinking Works … and Doesn’t

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Once you get past physics, reality is entirely negotiable. Taylor Pearson

Positive thinking — or visualizations, or affirmations, or “imaging”, as they call it in sports — is an approach to problem-solving where the user imagines, or envisions, the successful outcome of a project. 

It’s widely used in athletics, hypnosis, psychological counseling, and in some religions. Professions with payoffs that are hard to predict — sales, sports, the arts — often dabble in this approach. Business, where results really matter, is an arena where visualization techniques might offer great potential.

The theory is that outcomes — both good and bad — are controlled by our thoughts rather than merely by environment or genetics. You may have a difficult boss or co-worker, but you could imagine yourself getting along smoothly with this person — and, if you do it correctly, your mental pictures would result in an improved relationship. If your sales numbers are poor, you might visualize future reports with strong numbers, and somehow that would translate into better results down the line. Or you might “see yourself” as a slender and fit person, and this would cause excess weight to melt away and a rack of abs to appear.

At the simplest level, this process has been called “skull practice” — you’re simply rehearsing in your mind the behaviors and/or results you want so that, in real life, your nervous system automatically seeks out resources and performs actions that lead to your objective, and good results follow.

The most important assertion is that this kind of mental rehearsal can affect a much wider variety of outcomes than we normally believe can be altered — personality, health, financial situation, friendships, love life, etc etc. Sure, you can rehearse a speech in your head, but can you rehearse a change in your personality or bank account? The theory says yes.

Really? Can this stuff work? Can we use positive imaging to improve our results in the workplace and elsewhere? Or is it all a bunch of malarkey? 

In America, visualization descends from a late-19th-century philosophy called New Thought, which taught that the spirit of God is in everything, and that failure to understand this leads to wrong thinking and illness. New Thought also asserted that “thoughts are things” that can generate new matter out of imagination. In the 20th century, several popular books moved the conversation along: Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, Psycho-Cybernetics, Creative Visualization, and, recently, The Secret.

You can guess that there might be a certain amount of baggage and confusion accompanying these ideas. The entire field has an aura of magic, of the miraculous, that can turn off practical people. On one side we find enthusiasts making extraordinary claims, and on the other we have skeptics who believe the whole movement is a bunch of charlatans spouting unscientific rubbish. 

True, there are plenty of visualization coaches out there who are overweight. And studies have suggested that career criminals have strong self-esteem. On the other hand, formal research points to something useful:

  1. Science hints at benefits from “positive thinking”: “ . . . some evidence suggests positive thinking might have a strictly biological impact as well.” And it can improve health through stress reduction
  2. Emotional stress can influence gene expression: Soldiers with PTSD showed changes in the way their DNA controlled cellular activity. This opens the door for the possibility of changing ourselves at the genetic level through stress reduction and/or positive thinking. “ . . . it may be possible that positive thinking, through some physiological byproducts that, let’s say, reduce stress or lower blood pressure levels, could impact gene expression.” Your very DNA, then, may be malleable, and thinking might be the tool.
  3. Optimism boosts health: “ . . . people who are optimistic about their health tend to do better.

To add to the confusion, the literature on visualization and positive thinking is a mishmash of prescriptions, and some books contradict others. Here are a few of the many ways positive thinking has been presented:

–Imagine what you want, one time, and it will come to you

–Imagine what you want, over and over, until you get it

–Imagine what you want and make it intensely attractive

–Imagine what you want, then imagine the opposite, then choose what you want

–Imagine what you desire, then want, believe, and expect that it is true

–Imagine what you want and never allow bad thoughts to enter your mind

–Imagine what you want and then resolve any contradictions that arise in your feelings

At least they all involve imagining what you want. That’s a starting point.

Let’s try to remove the chaff. Then maybe we can get to the wheat.

First, there is what I call the “Stupid Brain Theory” of positive thinking. Basically, the theory is that “whatever we dwell upon we draw to ourselves,” so that if we focus on the problems we’re having, the problems get bigger. This is based on the idea that the mind is attracted to anything with strong emotional content. Why else would we fuss and worry about some issue, only to have it turn out badly? We must, perversely, have been attracted to the very thing that causes us pain. Therefore we should counteract all negative thoughts with positive ones. (This notion carries weight with evangelicals — many of whom are drawn to positive thinking — since it can be explained as “tests from God”.) 

More likely, we wallow in failures because we don’t realize there are better options. We try to make the best of a bad situation, and end up with … a modified bad situation. We’re not stupid; we’re just ignorant of the possibilities.

Then there’s “The Secret Theory”, which basically states that the great people of history all practiced positive thinking, but for some reason this tremendous power has been kept away from the mass of humanity. (That is, until the book The Secret came out, of course.) But the idea that billions of people have been so foolish and limited as to have failed after all this time (and access to the Internet) to find for themselves this wonderful tool … well, it beggars belief. 

It’s much more probable that we’re simply brought up from birth to “know our place” and to refrain from daring to imagine more. As well, many difficult roadblocks crop up in our lives where it’s hard to imagine workarounds, so that we sometimes adopt the stance that “it can’t be helped”, and we give up.

Also there’s the “Try Hard Theory” that says you’ll get everything you want if you just want it badly enough and are willing to work super-hard (and do your affirmations every day for 30 minutes). It’s possible this is true, but it’s also a distressingly difficult method. The whole point of visualizations is to get what we want, and it kind of cancels the benefit if we must suffer and struggle endlessly in the process.

Now let’s see if we can distill the core principles — the useful stuff:

The evidence:

  • Stresses of life sometimes leave us with pessimistic attitudes about our potential
  • Parents and authority figures often straitjacket us into their systems of struggle
  • Modern technology opens up possibilities for solving nearly every human problem
  • Optimistic attitudes are correlated with good outcomes
  • Sports stars, business leaders, and great artists often swear to the benefits of visualizing

The process:

  • See in your mind the outcome you desire
  • Choose and expect that outcome
  • Allow the outcome to arrive as it will
  • Refine the process to suit you

All you need see in your mind’s eye is the result you want. (If, instead of visualizing “I am worth four million dollars”, you focus on the process — i.e., “First I get a job, then I make money to invest, then I peel some off to start a business, then I hire an accountant …” — you’ll become lost in details and never get to the result.) 

Then you make what you desire into a choice, not a wish; this will charge your mind with the expectation of obtaining the result. You’ll start to notice yourself taking an interest in things you previously ignored; this is your mind running its search for the contents of the result you’ve chosen.

In fact, the act of daring to choose what you want, despite the apparent odds, may be key to the entire process. We yearn for what isn’t ours, but we choose what belongs to us. Perhaps it’s the simple act of choosing that makes things possible, that brings our desires to fruition.

It’s important not to limit yourself to what you think is practical or logical. This kind of worry will cause you to edit your desires until they resemble what you merely assume is available, and you’ll be back where you started. There’s a big difference between “It can’t be done” and “I don’t yet know how to do it”. You’ll be surprised at what is attainable.

By the way, if you imagine “I’m great at sales” or “I’m a terrific administrator” but you still have an old belief like “I’m not allowed to have my own success” or “I’m a bad person”, the old attitude will sabotage the new one. So address the deepest concerns first, then work your way down the list to the smaller items (like that Tesla roadster you have your eye on).

As you practice, you’ll find that some approaches work better than others. Perhaps bedtime is a good moment for you to do visualizing, or maybe the morning is better; it could be that reciting aloud your affirmations works well — or, instead, silence is golden. Try various ways and see what works for you. Every brain is different, so tailor the process to fit yours. And there is a TON of literature on the topic, so there’s plenty of counsel. (See above for links to the most famous works.)

The great lesson of modernity is that nearly anything is possible. The old days of restrictive tribal loyalties and self-abnegation are gone, replaced by endless possibilities opening up for us in the future. Rather than staying trapped in the old attitudes of scarcity and impossibility, our task now is to engage that future. And this is the moment when visualization — affirmations, “positive thinking”, call it what you will — can serve us as we create wonders. 

A wise person said, “When you take a stand [for something in your life], the world will arrange itself to agree with you.” You might as well try it and see.

* * * * 

UPDATE: “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.

UPDATE: Choose your role in life


Published by

Jim Hull

Jim Hull graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in philosophy, then spent ten years as a lecture-demonstrator in the performing arts, including tours and TV appearances. More recently, Jim has produced research, copywriting, and editing for numerous clients. He also has published two books: the set of essays ARE HUMANS OBSOLETE? and a novel, THE VAMPIRE IN FREE FALL. Jim teaches classes in current events and music at The Braille Institute in Los Angeles. He applies his unique perspective to create surprising, compelling solutions to difficult problems. Jim thinks the world would work better if people spent less time dominating each other and more time working alongside those with different viewpoints to resolve the challenges we all face. CONTACT JIM: ...

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