The positive thinking myth.

Nephew: Studies tell us positive thinkers tend to be happier. Therefore, wouldn’t positive thinking be important for happiness?

Uncle: No. Trying to control our thoughts isn’t helpful. Thoughts bounce around inside our skull like lotto balls. It takes a lot of energy to control our thoughts, and most people don’t gain that control.

‘You’re not controlling your negative thoughts – you’re just superimposing positive thoughts on top of them. Yes, you can train your brain to have more positive thoughts through repetition and habit, but at the end of the day, you cannot truly remove your negative thoughts. No matter how hard you try, you will always have negative thoughts.’
Atheneia Luna

Nephew: Nuh. You’re wrong. Let me tell you the story of the three stone masons.

Uncle: Uh oh.

Nephew: You walk up to the first stonemason and ask him, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘What does it look like I’m doing, you idiot? I’m cutting rock!’ You ask the second stonemason, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘I’m earning a living so I can feed my family.’ You ask the third stonemason, ‘What are you doing?’ He smiles and replies, ‘I’m building a magnificent cathedral.’

Uncle: Yes?

Nephew: Don’t you see? The third guy is better off than the first two. His positive attitude will make him happier. 

Uncle: It’s called ‘reframing’. It’s interpreting a situation in a way that’s beneficial.

Nephew: That’s right! If we think like the third guy we will be better off!

Uncle: I’d say so, but tell me the rest of the story.

Nephew: Huh? That’s it. That’s the end of the story!

Uncle: No, I want to hear the rest.

Nephew: But . . . don’t you get it? Look, a bloke called Frederick Langbridge once said: ‘Two men look out through bars: one sees mud, the other, stars.’ Do you get that? The two men are in the same position, but one chooses a positive attitude and the other chooses a negative attitude. Which man do you think will fare better in life?

Uncle: The man choosing to look at the stars?

Nephew: Yes! That’s the message! Positive thinking . . . or reframing . . . is a helpful skill to have. It makes life enjoyable. The cathedral guy is in a better position than his two mates because he views his work with a healthy, more meaningful perspective!

‘When my house burned down I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlight sky.’
Mark Zocchi in his book, ’More Sayings of the Buddha’.

Uncle: I agree, but you still haven’t finished that stonemason story.

Nephew: But . . . but I have! That’s it! Has your brain been in a blender? The happiness experts are suggesting we model ourselves on the third guy, who with his thoughts has the power to transform the mundane into something beautiful. That’s positive thinking at work!

Uncle: You haven’t yet told me the bit where the first two stonemasons stand up and proclaim, ‘Gosh, what a wonderful way to look at life! From now on, I’m going to think just like him!’

Nephew: Oh. . . .  I don’t think that’s part of the story.

Uncle: Why wouldn’t it be? After all, the two men have just been given a brilliant way to look at life, so why wouldn’t they adopt it immediately?

Nephew: What’s your point?

Uncle: I suggest to you that those two men won’t adopt his view. More likely, they’re going to think he’s a dill and steal his lunch. My point is: it’s no use telling people to think in a positive way because many people don’t want to think in positive way. They prefer to think in a negative way.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: They believe their happiness depends on what happens in life. “If that happens, I’ll be happy. If that happens, I’ll be unhappy.” So, they are afraid that if they think in a positive way they will be setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. But if they think in a negative way, they can prepare themselves for the worst.

Nephew: Maybe . . .

Uncle: It’s no use simplistically telling people to think positive, or to ‘reframe’, or to look for the bright side, because many people feel vulnerable doing so, and won’t. Yet the happiness gurus haven’t figured that out yet. They seem to think that telling us to adopt a positive attitude will prompt us to say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea! From now on I will!’ As though we have never heard of the ‘glass half-full’ or ‘glass half-empty’ concept.

Nephew: So you’re saying we can’t choose to be a positive thinker?

Uncle: That’s right. If it were that easy we’d all be doing it.

Nephew: But you’re not against positive thinking . . .  reframing . . .?

Uncle: No, but I am against suggesting to someone that they do it. Negative thinkers will only begin to think in a positive way when they lose their fear of the outside world. And that will happen only when they develop the feeling that whatever happens, they can handle it. When that happens, their anxiety will evaporate. They will begin to feel safe.

Nephew: And that’s when core happiness kicks in?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: Who are the positive thinkers? Who are the ones who see the stars and not the mud?

Uncle: The ones who feel safe. The ones who feel that whatever happens in life, they can handle it.

Nephew: What about the studies linking positive thinking with happiness?

Uncle: There is a link, but it’s the other way around. When we lose our fear and become happy, we become a positive thinker. We become the person who sees the cathedral.

Nephew: So, instead of trying to become a positive thinker, we should learn ways to make ourselves feel safe?

Uncle. That’s right. If you try to force yourself to become a positive thinker and present a positive attitude, while still feeling anxious in life, you will become conflicted. That is not a conflict you want.

Nephew: I don’t want any conflict, thanks.

Uncle: That’s a shame. You could do with a clip in the ear.

Nephew: What’s that?

Uncle: Come a little closer. I’ll give you something you can ‘reframe’.

Nephew: Get lost.

‘Another problem with positive thinking is that it prompts us to hang in there, in the hope the situation improves. But sometimes we need to despair, to prompt us to make the changes that deep down we know we should make. Sometimes we employ positive thinking because we fear the unknown, we fear the alternative, so we look for the best in what we have. But that’s not what we need in our life. Sometimes we need change, and being pessimistic can help us make those changes.’
Amanda Gordon. President of the Australian Psychological society.

‘Putting on a positive attitude or adopting positive thinking without changing the underlying core beliefs isn’t likely to bring sustained change. It is a lot like putting a new coat of paint over material that is rusting and peeling. For the new paint to really take and be lasting you first need to clean up the core belief structure underneath.’
From Gary Van Warmerdam’s website, ‘Pathway to Happiness’

‘ . . . deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap. If we see ourselves cooking the facts then the jig is up and ‘self-deluded’ joins our list of pitiful qualities. For positive views to be credible, they must be based on facts that we believe we have come upon honestly.’
Dan Gilbert.

‘So okay, we can see the glass as half full or half empty, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s half empty.’
Anon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘A lot of people mistake “being positive” for “being happy”. You can have a positive mindset and feel very unhappy inside.’

Adeline, reader.

‘Another problem with positive thinking is that it prompts us to hang in there, in the hope the situation improves. But sometimes we need to despair, to prompt us to make the changes that deep down we know we should make. Sometimes we employ positive thinking because we fear the unknown, we fear the alternative, so we look for the best in what we have. But that’s not what we need in our life. Sometimes we need change, and being pessimistic can help us make those changes.’
Amanda Gordon. President of the Australian Psychological society.

‘Putting on a positive attitude or adopting positive thinking without changing the underlying core beliefs isn’t likely to bring sustained change. It is a lot like putting a new coat of paint over material that is rusting and peeling. For the new paint to really take and be lasting you first need to clean up the core belief structure underneath.’
From Gary Van Warmerdam’s website, ‘Pathway to Happiness

‘ . . . deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap. If we see ourselves cooking the facts then the jig is up and self-deluded joins our list of pitiful qualities. For positive views to be credible, they must be based on facts that we believe we have come upon honestly.’
Dan Gilbert.

‘The problem I see with positive thinking is that it can all too easily become a barrier to action, because it’s based on the premise that you need to get yourself into the “right frame of mind” – positive, or motivated, raring to go, or whatever – before you can start acting” . . . ‘In fact, it can be tremendously liberating to realise that you don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it. You can just notice the negative feelings and act anyway.’
Oliver Burkeman, ‘Help! How to become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done’.

Q. ‘So, Mr B, you’re saying some of us don’t want to think in a positive manner because we are frightened of the outside world? Are there other reasons?’
Yes. Some of us pride ourselves on being rational and don’t want to appear naïve by irrationally expecting success. And some of us want to indulge in a good sulk; we want to see ourselves as the victim in some horrible injustice. Either way, the last thing we want is for some expert to tell us to look on the bright side.

Q. ‘So Mr Bashful, is the glass half full for you, or half empty?’
Ha. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, I’ll deal with it.

 Q. ‘Studies have shown that people who engage regularly in positive thinking are happier.’
Yes, if you’re happy it’s easy to be a positive thinker. That’s my point. Being happy makes you a positive thinker, so it’s no wonder there is a correlation.

Q. ‘If you expect to fail you are more likely to fail.’
Even if that were true, asking someone to expect to succeed is futile. If you’re not a positive thinker you can’t simply choose to be one.

‘Mr B, you mentioned “reframing”. What is it?’
It’s viewing a situation in a particular way, to avoid or reduce disappointment.
‘Looking on the bright side?’
Yes. In his book, ‘More Sayings of the Buddha’, Mark Zocchi presents a nice example: ‘When my house burned down I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlight sky.’
‘Reframing would be a good habit to get into, wouldn’t it?’
Yes. However, asking someone to reframe a situation, to look on the bright side, isn’t much help. But when a person takes responsibility for how they respond to life, and develops the feeling that they can handle life, the skill comes to them. This book is about developing that feeling.

Q. From an anonymous reader:  ‘Whenever I want to be in a good mood I will spend five minutes thinking about all the truly great things in life . . . my dog, the people I admire . . . .   I focus on the positive and it makes me happier. Yes, I really do that. And it really works.’
 That’s great if you can do it.

Q. ‘If we can’t choose to be positive thinkers what can we do?’
Two things. One: develop the feeling that whatever happens in life, you will handle it. (That’s what most of the keys in this book are about.) Then, after a while you will become a positive thinker.
Two: avoid being a negative thinker. When you catch yourself saying being self critical, or being negative, stop mid-word. Don’t complete the sentence. Or if you complete the sentence, recant it. ‘I take that back.  . . .  I’m not stupid. I simply made a mistake.’
   When you have the habit of recanting what you said you will nip the negative thought in the bud, (because you don’t want to be bothered having to recant it). You’ll find yourself not bothering to take up the opportunity to be negative, which is what you want.

Q. ‘Mr B, Dr Martin Seligman’s study shows that if for a few weeks a person does certain exercises (such as writing down things you’re grateful for, and writing down good things which have happened to you in the day), that person will become measurably happier.’
Yes, noticing your good fortune is one of the keys to core happiness. That’s different from positive thinking.

Don’t tell an ill person to have a positive attitude. Click here to read why.

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