This weekend I watched a bit on a news program that questioned the power of positive thinking.

“If things don’t go well, if you get sick, or if you lose your job, or fall into poverty, it must be your fault because you weren’t sending the right thoughts out into the universe,” said Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor and the author of Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

According to Ehrenreich, Americans discount reality for “magical thinking,” and she puts her stock in realism, rather than the promotion of positive thinking when it comes to dealing with adversity.

But adversity is a gift, right?  We’ve all heard that, but then again some gifts suck.

Remember Ralphie wearing his gift from Aunt Clara in A Christmas Story?

It’s okay to not be okay with what arrives at our doorstep. It’s normal to feel angry, sad or confused. It’s okay to want to cry, even wallow. Our feelings are real, even if you feel like no one else feels the same way.

Ehrenreich mentioned feeling guilty for not feeling the can do positive spirit during her bout with cancer, and she said she was tired of feeling guilty.

And it’s easy to feel guilty if you think you’re supposed to smile over the pain, the depression and the fact that life as you knew it feels over. And even more guilt inducing if you complain only to hear: “I was complaining that I had no shoes till I met a man who had no feet.” (Confucius)

No one should be made to feel guilty about their choice of focus. Your adversity, your choice.

But what is guilt? Could it be something wired in us to perhaps get us to rethink our direction? If we are struggling with our reaction to something, is it because we want to think differently?

There are plenty of people who disagree with Ehrenreich, in fact many say making a plan for hope actually aids in mental healing.

Because there is scientific proof that positivity is helpful. “I think there is a part of attitude that may play a role, and we’re still trying to understand that,” said Dr. Barry Boyd, oncologist and director of nutrition and cancer for the Yale Health System. “Working to build hope and build optimism may, in some individuals, change the biology of their cancer.”

Of course there are experts who disagree. “I think there’s a ton of pressure based on the belief that if they’re positive that they’ll live longer,” said Dr. James Coyne a University of Pennsylvania psychologist. “And then the downside of that is that if they deteriorate and they ultimately die of cancer, that they are somehow left being blamed: If only they had been more positive.”

But positivity is not about denial, but about interpretation. Your feelings are true and you can’t help what you feel, but you can help what you do about those feelings.

Crap happens and no one is immune, but how does staying in the crappy moment of that reality do any good?  What is wrong with hope?  Why does deciding to focus on the positive equal fantasy?

Positivity isn’t a Pollyanna view. It doesn’t mean ignoring realities or neglecting self-care for good thoughts. There’s a difference between Pollyanna and making a plan for how to live the rest of your life after facing adversity.

Just because you look toward the bright side, doesn’t mean you are blinded from the truth.

I don’t think the power of positive thinking is about living LONGER, it’s about living BETTER.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. in fact our response is the only thing we control.
In our response lies our growth and freedom.“
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

But not everyone believes that, and that is their prerogative. Some find value in cynicism, in much the same way some enjoy their Pollyanna glasses.

“One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri.”   How the Grinch stole Christmas (2000)

In fact while looking at the reviews of several popular self-help books I saw plenty of negative ones that read, a lot of glass half full crap.

Cynical, right? But then again, that person not only read that self help book, but took the time to write a review.

Maybe they didn’t find what they were looking for, but still they were looking for something.

In the meantime, positive thinking is there for the taking.

What do you think about the power of positive thinking?

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26 thoughts on “Questioning the Power of Positivity

  1. Shannon Esposito

    I think a lot of our stress comes from thinking, period. If you’re thinking negatively and dwelling on all the negative possibilities or past issues, then you’re going to be stressed. And we know that stress actually does change our DNA. So, I think positive thoughts do benefit our health. And like you said, it’s more about quality of life than quantity of days.

  2. Anthony V. Toscano

    Coleen,

    I watched the same TV clip.

    “I think there is a part of attitude that may play a role, and we’re still trying to understand that,” said Dr. Barry Boyd, oncologist and director of nutrition and cancer for the Yale Health System. “Working to build hope and build optimism may, in some individuals, change the biology of their cancer.”

    Dr. Boyd was careful to use the word “may” many times over. May is not scientific proof.

    Positive thinking is not the same as wishful thinking. That’s where I think the positivity gurus lead so many people astray. The biggest fool of recent memory is Rhonda Byrne with her book “The Secret.” It’s fine enough to say that an angry attitude attracts more anger and vice versa. It’s sinful, however, to imply that positive thinking — while in the middle of a negative situation — can attract health, wealth and happiness. A tsunami wave doesn’t give a hoot about your attitude.

    Byrne compiled and synthesized the thoughts of other people and called the compilation “research.” She’s full of baloney (and so was Oprah for entertaining such nonsense).

    Now I’m sure to be hit in the noggin with a roll of bologna. If so, however, I’ll be so sucker punched because people disagree with me, not because the cosmos needs to balance its magnetic field.

    And if after these comments, you can still show me mercy, I prefer Genoa salami to American bologna.

    1. asrai devin

      I totally agree Anthony. You stole most of what I came here to comment.

      I’ll add about positive thoughts and guilt. I suggest Bryon Katie’s books for better description then what I’m going to say.

      The problem with thoughts is they are just thoughts. They come and go. People often hold onto thoughts like they are the gospel. We believe our thoughts far too often. We don’t have to. And most of our thoughts are just fleeting half-truths.

      If you find yourself mired in depressive thoughts, you could try applying Bryon Katie’s questioning method (google “THE WORK”). Or you could just observe your thoughts.
      “Oh look, I’m feeling sad because XYZ” and the miraculous thing is the thought passes. And then we have another one. “I want to have a cookie.” So you get up and get a cookie. Or if you don’t have one you can choose to get really upset like a 2 year old might or you can find something else. Or you can go back to the sofa and watch what comes.

      It’s really a fascinating exercise.

  3. Susanna Hill

    I think these are the parts that say it all:
    “It doesn’t mean ignoring realities or neglecting self-care for good thoughts.”
    “Just because you look toward the bright side, doesn’t mean you are blinded from the truth.”
    “I don’t think the power of positive thinking is about living LONGER, it’s about living BETTER.”
    “Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
    In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. in fact our response is the only thing we control.
    In our response lies our growth and freedom.“
    – Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
    And not to say that it’s easy to be positive either – it can be very hard. But ultimately, I think it’s always going to be better than the alternative.

  4. Catherine Johnson

    I completely agree with Shannon. I am terrible for forgetting the bad things and I have always been a worrier. I have found that being silly helps, so whether or not that goes with your statement I’m not sure, but facing up to life and brushing things off are so important.

  5. Lynn Kelley

    “I don’t think the power of positive thinking is about living LONGER, it’s about living BETTER.” I agree with this quote, and I also believe that in some cases, living BETTER helps us live LONGER. As far as cancer, it depends on the type and how far along the cancer is. I love that photo of Ralphie. That’s one of my hubby’s favorite movies!

    1. Coleen Patrick Post author

      I love A Christmas Story too and couldn’t resist putting Ralphie in–I needed him to curb my seriousness!

      And thanks to everyone for commenting–I was really curious how people would weigh in!

  6. August McLaughlin

    Such a thought provoking post, Coleen! I love what you say here: “But positivity is not about denial, but about interpretation. Your feelings are true and you can’t help what you feel, but you can help what you do about those feelings.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I feel it’s important to not ‘play the victim,’ although it’s natural to feel like victimized at times. If we let ourselves feel and also seek the positives we heighten our chances of a desirable outcome and added bonuses, such as growth and new opportunities. Like many things in life, it’s about balance.
    August McLaughlin recently posted..Daniel Palmer on Writing, Success & the Dog that Saved his CareerMy Profile

  7. Julie Hedlund

    Very thought-provoking post. My husband and I have this debate all the time – me on the positivity side. He read Ehrenreich’s book and has been trying to get me to read it. I guess I haven’t because I don’t want to be “brought down” by the idea that positive thinking is all a load of crap.

    We can’t manufacture feelings, and if we’re not feeling positive about something it’s important to acknowledge that and not “cover it up” with FALSE positive thinking. However, we can choose what we focus on. I do believe that emphasizing the positive in our lives OVER the negative helps create a better life.

  8. Ginger Calem

    I totally agree with Susanna’s reply above. Great stuff to consider.

    I firmly believe that a positive, can do, determined outlook in situations can play a role in the outcome … even if only to keep your emotions in check so that your morale stays up and keeps you looking for solutions and finding things for which to be grateful.

    That’s not to say that one shouldn’t be mad, sad, disappointed, or worried and express those emotions. Better out than in!! But move on to solutions and actions ASAP.

    One thing I remind myself and others NOT to do when it comes to worrying is “Don’t borrow trouble.” It’s going to show up from time to time regardless so better to focus on other things and then attack the situation with positive gusto when it comes.

    Great post, Coleen.

  9. Sheila Seabrook

    It’s harder for some people to think positive than it is for others. I think we’re either born with a positive attitude or not. It’s possible to change a negative attitude to a positive one but I always wonder whether it’s possible to maintain that change for the long haul.

    Very good post, Coleen. It’s a good reminder to work on and maintain my own attitude. 🙂

  10. Kecia Adams

    Great post, Coleen! I weigh in in favor of positive thinking, mainly because I believe cynicism is easy while consciously choosing one’s reaction (as Frankl suggests) is much more difficult. It demands that breath, that instant before you let fly with your gut emotion. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. How much more difficult to conceive that philosophy when faced with the utter destructive randomness of the concentration camps?
    I also think any philosophy, taken to extremes, can be destructive. It is the middle path that gives the most reward but is hardest to walk.

    1. Coleen Patrick Post author

      My husband’s uncle was a holocaust survivor too. I thought about writing about him in regards to this post, but I wasn’t ready to go that deep. His losses were profound–he lost both his parents and got shipped off to a camp by the time he was a teenager. He was angry for decades, but the last ten years of his life he devoted to positivity and teaching tolerance.
      The resiliency of the human spirit boggles my mind! 🙂

  11. Esther

    Well said, Alex would have been so very proud of you. Many times being positive during the day helps us carry through with tasks we thought were going to difficult to achieve. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Debra Kristi

    I believe in the power of positive thinking. I don’t know if it could overcome something like cancer or not. My dad gave a good go of it and in the end we had to choose quality of life over quantity, but that could have just been the severity of the type of cancer he had. I do think a negative attitude will affect your physical wellbeing in many ways and we’re always best off trying to look at things on the bright side. Not always easy though, just ask Ralphie.
    Debra Kristi recently posted..Immortal Monday ~ The God of Thunder * Badass ThorMy Profile

  13. Emma Burcart

    Thanks for the look at both sides. I think we are in agreement. I believe in being positive, but not in being fake. We need to feel what we feel. But, we don’t need to put our feelings onto others. Half of the time when I’m upset, if I take a step back and look at the situation I will see that what is upsetting me is my reaction to what someone said. I’m the one giving it meaning. So, now I try not to give my own meaning to what others say, and I try to be positive, while also being true to myself.

  14. Jennette Marie Powell

    While I think there’s something to this positive thinking stuff, I’ve always been skeptical of philosophies like The Secret. Some things aren’t going to change no matter how much positive thinking you throw at them. Instead, I prefer to go with realistic optimism. When I was riding the query/submission rollercoaster, I knew that the odds were substantially in favor of me getting a rejection. I always hoped for a request – and sometimes got them – but expected the rejection. The main reason? When the rejection came, it wasn’t so much of a letdown, since it was expected. And those requests were wonderful surprises!
    Jennette Marie Powell recently posted..My Town Monday: Doorway to DominationMy Profile

  15. Louise Behiel

    Great Post Coleen. I used to be a negative nelly. all the time. Then I realized that it was only my perception – not reality (whatever that is). If I look at the empty part of the glass, I’m correct. it’s half empty. But if I focus on the liquid in the glass, then it’s half full and I can enjoy that.

    I didn’t get the Secret – it seemed to me to be about wealth and riches, rather than spirituality, which is how I see positivity.

    Wayne Dyer says that we can think positive or negative. We have no proof that thinking affects our life, but we have anecdotal stories that it’s true. So how you think might affect your life. Your choice/your gamble: negative or positive.

    I agree with him. I’ve learned I feel much better when I focus on what’s right in my life. I get more done; I’m happier; I’m more fun to be with. So what’s the harm?

    And yes we get sick and we die. It’s sad for those of us left behind. But I don’t think dying is a mistake or an error or anything other than a natural progression from this physical state into a state of non-physical being. Doesn’t have much of anything to do with positive living. At least that’s how I see it.

  16. Lynette M Burrows

    Great post, Coleen. I’m a glass half-full kind of gal myself.

    I absolutely agree with “I don’t think the power of positive thinking is about living LONGER, it’s about living BETTER.” I figure neither positive nor negative thoughts can entirely affect the duration of one’s life. After all, plants don’t appear to feel negative or positive emotions, yet they die. Yes, plants react to abuse, but it’s not just negative emotion. Death and bad things like cancer, automobile accidents and tsunamis are part of life. You don’t have to be happy about those things to have a positive attitude. And if you are feeling down and negative during a challenging time in life, that doesn’t mean you are a negative person (what about all those times previously that you were in a positive mindset?)

    My biggest concern about this sort of report is the tendency to put LABELS on things. Why do we have to label someone as having a negative attitude? So we can avoid them? So we can try to change them? So we can understand them? I don’t think so. After all, if you understand that I am an optimist, you only understand a tiny fraction of who I am.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!
    Lynette M Burrows recently posted..CAN A BAD HAIR DAY BE A GOOD THING?My Profile

  17. Leigh Covington

    I think I am a naturally positive person, but this level of positive thinking takes practice. That being said, I do believe that it works, but it truly takes time to learn it. To understand that your feelings can help control the “energies” in the universe. I worked with Mrs. Utah for a while and she was very big into this kind of stuff. It was interesting to learn. I definitely haven’t mastered this skill, but I do believe in it. Thanks for sharing this. Great stuff.

  18. Pat O'Dea Rosen

    I’ve been thinking about this post for two days, now, Coleen. While I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, I’m also a realist and resent those who believe they have the right to cajole, nag, and push others toward positivity for the sake of positivity. As you wrote, “No one should be made to feel guilty about their choice of focus. Your adversity, your choice.” Here’s my prayer: God, help me keep my mouth shut when I’m called upon to listen. Let me listen and not try to teach.

  19. Patricia Rickrode

    Well I feel better now, I think. I’d be more positive if I didn’t feel so guilty about it. Of course I’d also feel less guilty if I found some good in the situation. Glass half empty, glass half full. Get a smaller glass and your glass will be full again. It’s all so terribly confusing.

    All, silliness (or seriousness depending on how you want to look at it), nice way to get your readers to think a little bit, one way or the other. Thanks for sharing. I love the movie references; Grinch and Ralphie. Very nice.

    I always believe positive thinking is better than negative. I’m not sure I’ve reaped any benefits because of it, but I smile more.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Shidt

  20. Lydia K

    Great post, and nice to meet you Coleen! Our though processes have such an enormous amount of effect on our wellbeing, bodies, everything. In the grand scheme of things, I think I’m a glass half-empty kind of person. Realism never quite escapes me.

  21. Kathi Oram Peterson

    Put me in the camp of positive thinking. I do a lot of volunteer work at an assisted living center. The people with negative outlooks are most often miserable and make everyone around them miserable as well, while those with positive outlooks are a pleasure to be with. And I think they receive better care because the nurses want to be with them. Just my 2 cents. 🙂

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