Positive thinking: Is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Taking a positive approach can make us feel better, but negative thinking has its uses

“Ye’d be better practising kicking the effing ball if it’s goals ye want.”

So said the coach of a football team of my acquaintance before the word “coach” was applied to managers. The team was so dismal that it had never got into even the most obscure of leagues. Some of us, however, had been given a pep talk in our classroom by a teacher who had read Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking and who was experiencing a temporary fit of enthusiasm for this approach.

And so we asked our coach if he thought the practice of positive thinking would improve our chances of winning games. The answer we got was the answer we expected. We had never known him to express a positive thought.

He was right, too. We were no good. We couldn’t kick a ball in any meaningful sense of the phrase. Only practice could save us from ourselves. In the end, which came shortly after the beginning, we vanished into history.

Positive thinking isn’t magic.

I thought of our coach recently when I read that a Brexiteer, asked what would happen if Britain ran out of food, replied that there were rabbits in the fields and potatoes in the back gardens, enough to feed the nation. If you would only think positively about this, the message seemed to be, all problems can be overcome and a glorious future awaits.

Don’t feel guilty

We are all used to the injunction to think positively all the time and we feel guilty about slipping again and again into negative thinking. But negative thinking would appear to be a built-in part of the brain’s defence system, and that’s understandable: an ever-optimistic defence system would be as useless as a nightclub bouncer who sees only the good in people. So we don’t have to feel guilty about our inability to maintain a positive attitude all day long.

Positive thinking can make us feel better and can sometimes help us to see opportunities we mightn’t otherwise see or acknowledge. For that reason, I deliberately look out for positive aspects of my experience at least once a day.

But the idea of positive thinking as a form of magic that can breed rabbits in the fields of Britain (the UK currently has one rabbit for every 66 people. I looked it up), grow potatoes in gardens or turn incompetent footballers into winners runs counter to reality.

Where did it come from? In Smile or Die, US journalist Barbara Ehenreich, writes that positive thinking was a 19th-century reaction against the Calvinism brought by the early settlers, which she describes as "a system of socially imposed depression". The dour Calvinist approach took the joy out of life, she argues, and made many people miserable. The expansion, excitement and possibilities of the 19th century brought what was called New Thought, which later became positive thinking.

Sardonic comment

The title of Ehenreich’s book is a sardonic comment on the belief that positive thinking can get you through a physical illness. As I said above, it might make you feel emotionally better, which is a good thing. But the idea that if you don’t get better you must have been insufficiently positive is oppressive, untrue and unfair.

Rumination, which means getting lost in a loop of relentless negative thinking, is bad for people’s mental health, so we need to be able to step out of it when when we find ourselves caught in it.

My own approach is to look on positive and negative thinking as a continuum. On the extreme positive end is the sort of magical thinking that makes you think you can breed many millions of rabbits using only your attitude. On the other end is a level of negativity so deep that ordinary unhappiness would be an improvement. Maybe the ideal is to be at the halfway point with the dial biased a few degrees towards positivity so you’ll feel good about it.

But don’t forget: if you want to win games, learn to kick the effing ball.

Padraig O'Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)

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