In this series of articles I’d like to give you the latest scientific research on positive thinking. I will show you when positive thinking is helpful and when it’s not…and I’d like to begin by giving you my use of positive thinking, past and present.
The Positive Thinking Continuum
At some point in your life, you’ve read – maybe even extensively – about the power of positive thinking. Some advocates of Positive Thinking promote the idea that if you believe good things will happen to you, there will be some sort of cataclysmic shift in the energies surrounding you which will actually cause good things to happen to you.
Others simply believe that having a “well it could be worse” or “look at the bright side,” attitude makes you a happier, if not better, person.
For as many people who believe in the power of positive thinking, there are many more who believe it’s all a bunch of New Age pop psychology junk or sugar-coated Peter Pan platitudes.
(Dottie Walters, who worked for the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, would love those P P P words squished together. Alliteration or consonance or something…ah…..I don’t remember….)
And then you have me…. and people like you and me. People who look at the experience of the self and the results of others. ….People who observe, learn, measure, evaluate and implement.
I simply collect information, check it out, see if it works for most people (or more than something else) and test it.
My opinion isn’t so important, the approach is.
You and I both know that people who believe anything spoon fed to them are nothing more than misguided mindless sheep.
So what is the real deal?
Is The Power of Positive Thinking real…or…is it B.S?
I remember reading The Power of Positive Thinking at a very difficult time in my life (that would have been a couple of decades squeezed between a few errant days).
“You can be so negative,” my Mom said to me on a few hundred occasions.
No question about it.
I was not a positive thinker. All around me people were divorcing if they were lucky, dying if they weren’t, and I grew weary of parenting brothers and sisters by the age of 15-ish.
I was POSITIVE I would not live the rest of my life like that.
I read POPT the first time as a teenager.
I clearly remember…
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“If you have the faith of a mustard seed…mountains move.”
I remember Dr. Peale pounding home those messages.
And they were in the Bible, so, I knew they had to be true but man, I was a very faithful Christian and life was not so hot.
I loved the book. I wanted to believe the message… and as time went on I brainwashed (conditioned) myself to believe the messages of Peale’s book in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Don’t get me wrong. I was never known for my sunny disposition. I could have fun, I could laugh, but life was tough and back in those days most of the time I didn’t like living in it.
Do We Attract Unhappiness?
Happiness happened by accident once in awhile…
Unhappiness was certainly not “attracted” into our lives. It was simply what we were born into…and the feelings experienced after traumatic events happened….and unfortunately they happened regularly and were beyond thought and action control.
But… there wasn’t anything to lose by adopting the philosophy. Life could have gotten worse, but it would have been a very short road to get there.
Reading POPT happened at the same time I first read, Think and Grow Rich and, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and Possibility Thinking. I was a teenager who wanted a better life… and…would do pretty much anything to get it.
So in my little personal life experiment of “one” what did I learn?
I came to the belief that pretty much everyone except the flakiest side of the continuum was “right.” (and wrong)
My evaluation of POPT has adjusted over the years…but later… as we move through the articles, all KEYPOINTS will be matured, current and researched thought vs. the experience of “one.”
So, What IS Positive Thinking?
Positive thinking, at it’s core, is a life philosophy that is most definitely comprised of very specific beliefs.
Now, obviously beliefs don’t necessarily require evidence. They might only require “faith.” And though I had a very strong “faith” in God, “faith” was only part of the picture that was as much or more about doing good works to and for others.
I was definitely more of what we called a “James” guy… (Faith without works is dead.) I still am….
But I adopted the philosophy.
And, I found that the philosophy DID give me some “unseen strength.”
I talked and “read” myself into believing we could survive. I could make it.
I could beat the chains of our “life conditions.”
I could live a real life that meant something.
I flat out talked myself into it.
And I certainly came to the conclusion that if you believe positive thinking doesn’t “work” for yourself, then indeed…it doesn’t.
Part of the necessary belief structure for me was to get rid of “ALWAYS” from my thinking. In other words, I couldn’t ALWAYS move a mountain. I couldn’t ALWAYS make something good happen.
Even if it said so in the Bible, I couldn’t go there because reality over-ruled my faith in those situations. I tried to move sofas and chairs and dishes and spoons and rocks…all to no avail. I even thought about moving a mountain as I went through the Rockies with my grandparents as a kid. Needless to say, these attempts at telekinesis were not what Jesus was talking about.
I remember reading in the Bible that even he didn’t “heal them all” (though he cited the other people’s faith…Two different types of “attraction” and only one is going to have the desired result.)
I determined that if you believed it would work…well, it would help more, and might give you something to “hold onto” when life was going to hell all around.
For the purpose of this series of articles I want to yield MOST of my early skeptical viewpoints on this philosophy and show the significant benefits and a few critical drawbacks and show how this philosophy can impact your life for the better.
So back to the story of the boy in Chicago…reading a book that says, be positive, you can do it, it will happen, Jesus will help you, have the faith….and….good things will start happening….
Using positive thinking is like trying to get a job after high school.
You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get the experience. It can be difficult to know where you’re supposed to start.
At first, I wanted POPT to simply make me happier and to know that not as many people in the family would die… that we wouldn’t go through a divorce again for awhile and that I’d get into college….
Had I been more mature, I would have focused on things that were under my control.
I didn’t do that.
So, results were mixed real fast.
But, I did feel better about one thing…
BUT, I did feel a little better if not more confused about God, the meaning of life (I read Viktor Frankl when I was 13, that’s how challenging life could be in those days…)
Not a whole heck of a lot GOT better in life, but I felt better because I was brainwashing myself to believe that things would be better.
(And in case you’re wondering, I don’t regret it for a second!)
I read the book over and over, underlined hundreds of passages in it. I still have the book in my library.
And, I say “brainwashing”, because to call it anything else is silly. I knew precisely what I was doing. I was trying to escape (change?) reality by changing my thoughts.
(this is roughly what you do in therapy nowadays…)
Because of my interest in cults as a kid, I read about brainwashing early in life…by age 11. I knew that people’s views could be changed fairly quickly on just about anything.
Two things were “working.”
- I was definitely developing a mental toughness when bad stuff happened. I’d go back to the book and plug in a bunch of “positive thoughts” several days each week. If my life was a “2” before the book, within a few months it was a “3” or “4” on the inside….Not a lot of improvement but certainly a change in feeling about what was POSSIBLE and about my ability to DO ANYTHING I COULD PUT MY MIND TO.
- In small things I noticed that I often did better. Breaking codes, playing chess. I believed in my self more and it seemed to have a good effect overall.
Now…did it get you out of lifelong depression? Did people quit dying and divorcing? Did life get “all good” and everything….?
And I had a whole bunch of faith. A full thermometer of faith.
Frankly, I knew that faith was believing (being certain) about stuff you couldn’t measure….stuff you couldn’t see.
I had faith.
The Bible was written by the inspiration of God and I *knew* that. I felt no guilt as so many do when they are told their faith is “weak.” It didn’t waver back in those days.
And positive thinking had the two key effects that were good that I mentioned above.
But I realized soon enough that there was no genie (or Barbara Eden) in the lamp…
A Philosophy Emerges
If I were to coach someone on my philosophy of POPT, today, I would definitely encourage my protege to start small.
Plant seeds, fertilize, water, be patient, harvest later.
As I matured, I realized that Jesus had a few cool stories about planting now and reaping later…and he wasn’t big on people who didn’t work or refused to take risks, chances….
I always liked that about Jesus. He didn’t have a wimpy work ethic.
Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking, once said:
“If you have zest and enthusiasm you attract zest and enthusiasm. Life does give back in kind.”
This is the essence of positive thinking. It’s not so much a theory as it is a contagious thought virus.
POPT helped me develop tenacity. I never got all that I wanted… all that I was attracting….the “everything will be good,” “life is wonderful” and so forth.
But I did develop a POPT in my self… and THAT has been worth a great deal… (a top ten life experience)
I would go through periods of profound sadness and sometimes I’d come out with this enthusiasm toward my future that was pretty impressive…mostly due to POPT and books like it.
I knew I would have to have a hand in my own future because I didn’t like the way just about anyone else I knew lived. Very early I knew I wanted FREEDOM and I believed…had brainwashed… myself…that I would attain that.
When it comes to human emotions…it’s pretty clear that they can often spread like a virus.
Thoughts Alone Influence
Through the action of mirror neurons in the brain and our brains’ ability to replicate others feelings in our brains…it was clear early on that a person’s thoughts alone could influence – change in other people.
The metaphysical people believed it was a spiritual thing.
I did for awhile but because of that nauseating scientific mind, it wasn’t long before I determined that ….I wasn’t that good.
But, just as anger and negativity spread quickly from person to person, so do humor and happiness.
Think about it: have you ever noticed that the quickest way to ease a tense situation is to say something sarcastic or say a line from a funny movie?
The instant someone laughs or smiles, a sense of relief spreads through everyone in the vicinity.
Even if the angered parties don’t feel better, they are at least able to discuss the problem in a detached and somewhat more productive and objective way, …and get on with their lives instead of dwelling on negativity.
For that same reason, solo drivers who get cut off in traffic tend to remain angry for at least the rest of the drive – because there is no one else near them to break the tension.
Makes sense, doesn’t it?
If you’ve read this far, the seeds of belief are already there.
Let Your Possibilities Grow
Your next step is to clear your mind’s garden of doubt in your self and get ready to plant. You’ll learn how to take all that negativity and mulch it down into fertilizer that will let your possibilities grow. Now grab your shovel, and let’s head in to the garden.
The biggest tree in the world grows from a seed you can hold between two fingers…
“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t…you’re right.” – Henry Ford
I’ll see you next week for planting a field of real life positive thinking.