The Myth of Positive Thinking

While the happiness myths discussed here may be ineffective or only partially successful, positive thinking has the distinction of potentially causing harm in the process, and a clear understanding of what's actually happening in this process may lead to avoiding that fate, while adjusting the approach from this place of clarity may lead to some actual benefit.

The fundamentals involve replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, and using positive affirmations. The proponents of this plan consistently reference the correlation between optimism and well being, or to violate the precept of positive thinking, the correlation between negative thinking and poor physical and psychological well being.

positive thinking

There is, in fact, a correlation, but as we say repeatedly here, correlation and causation are not the same. The implication is that having positive thoughts causes one to be optimistic, while actually positive thoughts is a very natural and expected result of a positive attitude. It's not so that thinking positive thoughts causes one to be a positive person, though it may well cause one to be a pessimistic person who is having positive thoughts. To clearly distinguish between the two, we need to refer to our ice burg analogy.

happiness Conscious thought is the portion of the ice burg that is visible on the surface, which is a very minor portion of the dynamics occurring in the 'submerged' portion of the mind, which actually leads to the conscious thoughts. Another way of looking at it is that the thoughts we are consciously aware of are merely the end result of the functioning of the totality of the psyche. By definition, we are not conscious of that unconscious material out of which conscious thought forms. This is why negative thoughts so often seem rather unruly and out of out control, because they are.

So what we attempt to do in positive thinking is consciously remove attention from the end result of the processing of the totality of our subconscious mind and consciously attend to a positive thought because we don't like what the mind actually believes and feels. This new thought doesn't change what is actually believed or felt, it just suppresses the conscious awareness of what is believed and felt, and herein lies the danger.

Positive thinking claims that it is not suppression and yet the process reveals that it is. The positive affirmations that follow serve to reinforce this suppression, as the now ignored negativity builds energy in the subconscious, and may take the form of an un-grounded anxiety. The one engaged in this process is likely to encounter an increasing variety of negative thoughts and feelings as they seek a way to fully express, and it's likely that he will see himself as a failure, which of course reinforces the negativity already present. While there may be some short term benefits, in the long term, the practitioner gets the message that he is a failure in the art of positive thinking, and yet it is his approach that sets him up for failure, and this is precisely what he doesn't need.

failure The optimistic person benefits from his optimism, and expresses it in the form of positive thoughts. The pessimist can no sooner become an optimist by thinking positive thoughts as the optimist can become a pessimist by thinking negative thoughts. For the optimist, those negative thoughts will merely highlight the absurd falsity of those thoughts for him.

So why does positive thinking seem top be successful sometimes? Because the attention on the negative thoughts can bring a hieghtened awareness of the quantity and destructive quality of those thoughts. One becomes hyper aware of how he sabotages his own experience by imagining the worst that can happen, and will likely notice that most of those thoughts aren't even true.

In the light of this clarity, the unconscious dynamics of the mind begin to change, and this alters the quality of the thoughts that reach the surface of conscious awareness. What we're talking about is not the attempt to directly change the thoughts, but simply becomming consciously aware of the thoughts that occur spontaneously. Thoughts and feelings are not supressed or altered but rather allowed their full expression, while clarity collapses and restructures the negativity in the light of truth.

Phil Beaumont

From 'Positive Thinking' to Happiness Home
Happiness Myths

More Happiness Myth articles:

Steps to Happiness?
Positive Psychology (part 1)
Positive Psychology (part 2)
The Happiness Project Myth 2

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