The myth of positive thinking

SunComing of age in the 80s, I have heard and read my share of self-help advice. By the time Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” hit the Billboard Top 100 in 1982, I had already read a dog-eared version of M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“. “I’m OK, You’re OK” had already become a pop-psychology joke. Freud was out, Jung was slipping, Maslow was in. Hierarchy of needs, baby.

Enter New Age. The stores, the books, the incense. Meditation, channeling, crystals, astral projection, psychic energy, self-healing, Mother Earth, the Gaia effect. And somehow, the idea of positive thinking degenerated into a think-yourself-rich, think-yourself-well kind of magical thinking. (This thinking-it-will-make-it-true schtick reappeared in 2006, troublingly, in Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret”.)

The gist of it was, if you had troubles, you weren’t doing something right. Sick? Probably your fault; some unaddressed soul issue was manifesting as a physical ailment. Poor or lonely? You’re not attracting the right energy. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

At the core was the idea of creative visualization. Picture yourself doing a great [insert your goal here] and if you do it right (the disclaimer), it will happen.

I have always been not only skeptical of this way of thinking, but downright uneasy with it. There is a thread of delusional selfishness that runs through these ideas. The subtext seemed to say, just pretend the bad stuff isn’t there and it will go away. And, note that proponents of positive thinking focus on achieving personal success and wealth. Screw everyone else.

So I was most interested to read in Made to Stick (the Heath brothers) about a study that was done at UCLA that seemed to suggested that going over (and over) the past had a greater impact on taking action in the present than visualizing the future.

The study was called, The Effects of Mental Simulation on Coping with Controllable Stressful Events and was led by Inna D. Rivkin and Shelley E. Taylor. Here is how it worked:
All participants designated an ongoing stressful event in their lives. One third of the participants visualized the event and the emotions they had experienced (event simulation), one third visualized having resolved the problem (outcome simulation), and one third were simply followed over time (control). Event simulation participants reported more positive affect, both immediately and 1 week later, and indicated higher levels of planned and reported active coping strategies, compared with the other two conditions.

In a nutshell:
One group continued their current coping strategies, one group focused on visualizing a positive outcome (outcome simulation) and one group mentally rehashed how they got to where they were (event simulation).

The rehashers used what they learned to plan better strategies for the future. My take is that, instead of passively visualizing that great day when the clouds part and all problems are solved, we are better served to review the steps that got us where we are and pull out the some learning as we go.

A caveat, I think, is that this is not a stew-in-your-juices kind of rehash. It’s an analysis. It’s not about replaying past wrongs and plotting revenge. If you want to do that, maybe The Secret is really for you.

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