Think positive? – Three examples of positive thinking that could be counter-productive

November 29, 2016

Positive thinking – it’s a good thing, right? Whether we’re talking about a traditional British “Chin up old chap, look on the bright side” or a 21st century, social media motivational quote – “Find a place inside yourself where nothing is impossible” – it’s all, well, positive, isn’t it? Well, actually, no; it turns out isn’t. Here are three examples of positive thinking that could, in fact, be counter-productive:

1. Believe in yourself – you can be anything you want to be

No. You can’t. You can certainly aspire to be anything you want and you can give it a damn good go. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it. With enough practice, I might learn to sing and dance but I’m under no illusion that I’d ever have what it takes to star in a West End musical. That’s not because I don’t believe in myself enough. It’s because I’ve got a realistic assessment of my ability.

Most of the kids who aspire to play sport for their country or be an astronaut or become Prime Minister won’t make it, no matter how much they believe in themselves or how hard they try. Hard work and dedication are important but they’re not enough if you don’t have the talent. Luck also plays a part – you may not get to be Prime Minister if your party is out of power for a decade, for example. And let’s not pretend that you and your aspirations exist in isolation from the rest of society with its in-built advantages and conscious and unconscious biases. Pity the poor kid who dreams of being an urban rapper but is burdened by going to Eton.

Aspiration is a great thing. I wish I’d had more of it in my lower middle class, know-your-place, get-a-safe-job childhood. But what kind of disappointment are we setting people – especially children – up for, if we encourage them to believe they can achieve anything, rather than they can aim to achieve anything.

2. You are a remarkable human being

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you probably aren’t. By definition, most of us are average at most things, we just don’t like to accept it. One study of American drivers, for example, found that 93% of them thought they were in the top 50% of drivers, which, even if your numeracy is below average, you’ve probably realised is a statistical impossibility. Even if you’re brilliant at some things, you’ll be average at lots of others. Usain Bolt may be the fastest man in the world, but I’d be fairly confident taking him on at Scrabble.

That’s not really the problem here, though.Man in mirror No, the problem is that people turn to statements like these when they need to boost their self-esteem. Self-help gurus often suggest positive affirmations to develop confidence. But if you’ve resorted to standing in front of a mirror saying “I am a remarkable person” it’s because you don’t actually believe it. Some inner voice is likely to pipe up and contradict your affirmation – “No I’m not. I work in call centre in Swindon and play badminton at the weekend”. The evidence suggests that positive affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse, not better.

3. Visualise your goals

So let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of ‘visualise it and the universe will provide’, cosmic re-ordering espoused by Noel Edmonds because I find that hard to take seriously. If only the people of Aleppo focused just a bit harder, eh Noel?

No, I mean the slightly less New Age idea of visualising your goals to psyche yourself up to achieve them – visualising where your business will be in a year,woman-winning imagining yourself giving a fantastic presentation, getting a really clear picture of hitting the perfect shot at that tricky 9th hole. Some of this is useful. It helps to be clear what you’re aiming for; you’re more likely to spot opportunities which are aligned with your goals.

Visualisation is also useful for mental rehearsal. You really can improve your golf swing just by imagining it. One of the mantras of the self-help movement is that your brain can’t distinguish between reality and something you vividly imagine and this is, at least partly, true. However, no one ever tells you there’s a downside. If you have a goal in mind but have not attained it yet, there’s a tension which drives you to achieve. But if you vividly imagine all the positive feelings you’ll feel when you reach this goal, your brain thinks you’ve done it. You relax, some of that drive dissipates and you are actually less likely to achieve your goal.

So positive thinking really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe that’s a relief to you. If your glass is permanently half empty and you don’t find positive thinking easy, next month will be a real treat –  the underrated benefits of negative thinking. Well I say ‘a real treat’; obviously, most things aren’t that good, are they? I’m mean, don’t get your hopes up but it might be worth reading just in case. What’s the worst that can happen?

Photo credits

Positive thinking:  Corbis Corporation

Man in the mirror: tschundler

Woman winning: Feedough | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images

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  1. Bridget Beer November 30, 2016 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts on positive thinking. I had started to think that it was just me being cynical when this sort of thing is being rolled out and colleagues all appear to think its marvellous. Good to have a reality check at last!

    • carolinegourlay November 30, 2016 at 2:44 pm - Reply

      No it’s not just you, Bridget. Some positive thinking is, well, positive, and some deserves scepticism. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Cath jowers November 30, 2016 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    Completely on the money as always as well as highly entertaining

  3. Jeremy Marchant December 2, 2016 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Thank you for this. You make some important points, and you make them well.

    On the subject of visualising your goals, the analogy I use is golf. If you want to get this ball into that hole, what do you focus on? Everyone who doesn’t play golf says the hole (ie, the goal, in your terms). Most people who do play say the ball, which is the right answer. (Or, as one golfer pedantically corrected me, you focus on your swing).

    All professional golfers focus on the ball, not the hole.

    In other words, if you want to get this ball into that hole, you focus on doing the *one thing* that will have an effect on whether the ball goes into the hole or not: you focus on hitting the damn thing as well as you can. (So, I and my pedantic golfer are both right.)

    More on this, including an exciting picture of a golf ball, here:

    • carolinegourlay December 2, 2016 at 9:43 am - Reply

      Thanks Jeremy. I have to say that the prospect of an exciting picture of a golf ball piqued my interest, so I clicked. Great article. I fear that you oversell how exciting a golf ball photo can be!

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