Newsletter  >  Exploring the Mind (April 4, 2007)

Why Positive Thinking Is Not Nirvana


Unless you have been living under a rock lately, you have probably noticed the big hoopla behind the movie The Secret promoting something called "The Law of Attraction." It's been all over the internet. And somehow the movie has caught the attention of Larry King and daytime television, among others.

In this email, I will not go into all of the reasons why I think this whole "Law of Attraction" theory is a bunch of nonsense. Other people, including Newsweek,, and The LA Times have done a much better job than I could do in pointing out its fallacies.

A friend of mine named Blair Warren has compiled a list of articles which are not too fond of The Secret. For more information, check out his list:

Blair is a film producer for corporations and has absolutely nothing to sell you. He just really hates the movement. (I hate it is as much as he does, but I'm lazy, and I'll let him tell you why it's bunk.)

One strange thing about positive thinking

But I've found one interesting aspect of this discussion. Even those peope I talk with who agree with me that the law of attraction is silly tell me that the movie really isn't a big deal. Their reasoning? "At least it teaches people how powerful positive thinking can be."

At first I accepted this, at least somewhat, but it got me thinking. I am not really a positive thinker, and I know a whole lot of people who aren't positive thinkers either who do quite well. (Not that I am anyone to emulate, by the way.)

So I decided to do some research. Well, it didn't take me a long time to find out that the folks who espouse positive thinking haven't done theirs.

In the October 2006 issue of Atlantic Monthly there is a great report that I believe gets to the heart of the issue. The title of the article is "The Power of Negative Thinking."

Buried in an unsurprising report showing how far US students lag behind their Asian counterparts in both grade school math and science scores, there was some surprising data.

"Despite faring worse on a standardized eighth-grade science test than students in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, American students are more than twice as likely as their peers in those countries to enjoy high 'self-confidence' in their ability to learn science."

Look at the chart below. I love the title!


Let's go back to the power of positive thinking. In this case believing in success did not lead to success. It appeared that working really hard and having a realistic attitude carried the day.

From "positive thinking" to "defensive pessimism"

With a cursory Google search, I found that Dr. Julie K. Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, has written a whole book on the power of NEGATIVE THINKING. She refers to negative thinking as Defensive Pessimism, a strategy of imagining the worst-case scenario of any situation.

Here is how it works:

Letting yourself think about negative outcomes (for example, the train running late, being late for a job interview, not being ready for the final exam, discovering your new business opportunity is a big scam) actually helps you do your best, because you have prepared for the worst.

In fact, Dr. Norem has found that many people perform more poorly when forced to think positively. Turns out negative thinking is often an effective strategy for managing anxiety.

In her book, she goes through stories of people who have used negative thinking to increase their self-esteem and make progress toward their personal goals.

I don't want to pull anymore from Dr. Norem's book here. If you're interested in reading more, you can find it on Amazon or order it through your favorite local bookstore. The title is The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

Negative thinking for your health?

I also found that researchers have done some work on health. Although the studies of positive thinking and health outnumber the negative thinking ones, not all studies show a protective relationship of optimism or a negative effect of pessimism on health.

Chesterman, Cohen, and Adler (1990) found that optimism predicted birth complications in older women, and F. Cohen, Kearney, Zegans, Kemeny, Neuhaus, and Stites (1997) found evidence suggesting that optimists showed decreased immunocompetence in response to stress. However, in another study (Bachen, Manuck, Muldoon, Cohen, & Rabin, 1991), pessimism was associated with decreased immunocompetence in response to stress.

A major upset in tennis

In a recent New York Times article from March 26, 2007, there was a story about Amer Delic, an 89th seed who just upset the number 4 seed in the Sony Erickson Open. How did he do it?

He visualized, "hitting forehands into the seats and volleys into the net. He pictured himself being blown off this island by Nikolay Davydenko, the No. 4 seed in the Sony Ericsson Open."

The article goes on, "After lulling himself to sleep Sunday night by imagining the worst that could befall him on the grand stage of Crandon Park's Stadium Court, the 89th-ranked Delic went out Monday and defeated Davydenko, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in the third round for his first victory against a top-10 player since turning professional in 2003."

Different strokes for different folks?

These are just a few I found without serious research. Does this "prove" negative thinking works and positive thinking is all bunk?

Of course it doesn't. There is a lot of compelling research that a positive outlook can be very beneficial. What I am trying to show is that nothing is cut and dried.

I found it especially interesting that when people with pessimistic outlooks are forced to think positively, their performance suffers. Maybe it is a personality trait thing where different strategies work for different people. Who knows for sure?

What I do know is that the people selling "positive thinking" and "the law of attraction" oversimplify and go too far. They say that if you even think about something negative, you will attract it. They tell you not to follow the news, or even expose yourself to anything negative. Such exposure will somehow bring negativity into your life.

Imagine if police officers and firemen had this attitude! Or social workers who run homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

My two cents (and remember I am not a self-help guru or a psychologist -- just a consumer who likes to do a lot of research) is that when it comes to self-help gurus, miracle success formulas, or basically anything that claims it has all the answers, the first thing you should do is either run or do some intensive research!

Nothing works for everybody (including hypnosis) and there are no magical formulas or "laws" (like the law of attraction) that will guarantee your success. My view is that life is complicated and I seriously doubt any advice which tells me otherwise.

No recommendations on this one - just food for thought. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this topic. Just reply to this email. It comes right to me!

signature - Michael Lovitch
Michael Lovitch
Co-Founder, The Hypnosis Network

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