the power of positive thinking

negative thinking > power of positive thinking
scope modes explanation limits
One of the basic ideas of positive thinking is that people are motivated to change by positive images.  This idea is applied at all four levels of thinking: material, mental, social and spiritual.  The proponents of positive thinking often recommend specific techniques for creating positive images, such as creative visualization. These techniques are used to solve both professional and personal problems.  On this page, we look at some examples of positive thinking in the four domains: material, mental, social and spiritual. Why does positive thinking work - when it does?
  • LeftBrain  / RightBrain
  • Example: religion & popular culture
  • Hypnosis
  • NLP
  • more

    Positive thinking for material goals: wealth and health.

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > material goals

    The material domain includes material wealth.

    Many of the roads to material wealth seem to demand a lot of will-power and determination, and positive thinking offers to help you in this respect.

    You want a swimming pool in your garden. So you imagine its appearance, the congratulations of your friend/s, the joyful sounds of your children splashing, the warm feeling of water against your skin. These images provide the motivation for you - either the energy to dig the pool yourself, or the drive to earn the money to pay someone else to dig it for you.

    The material domain also includes the physical body and its health.

    There are many examples of psychosomatic disease, where trivial (or even non-existent) physiological discomforts are amplified by the imagination into major physical problems. This self-destructive imagination is another example of what we should call positive (i.e. additive) thinking, although most people would probably want to call it negative (i.e. bad) thinking. Conversely, there are many well-documented cases of psychosomatic cures (e.g. placebos, hypnosis, faith-healing) for genuine physical maladies - from warts to cancer.

    The idea that positive thinking can affect physical health challenges the traditional separation of physical health from mental health. So let’s move on to look at mental health.

    Positive thinking for mental goals

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > mental goals

    This is the most common area where positive thinking is advocated. Pull yourself together, look on the bright side, every cloud has a silver lining.

    You want to get out of this melancholy mood? Get yourself a purpose in life, brighten yourself up, get yourself a reason for existing, get a life. Think of the future. You’ll meet someone else. It’s not the end of the world.

    When a person is in deep depression or mourning, such comments and suggestions by relatives, friends and colleagues are intended to be helpful. They are not.

    It is certainly true that some cases of depression are psychologically debilitating, and the individual cannot extricate him/herself without help. But jolly exhortations to positive thinking are rarely effective or suitable help for such people in such mental states. What they can sometimes achieve is to bully the mourner into concealing his/her feelings.

    However, exhortations to positive thinking are often motivated by embarrassment or discomfort. Often the would-be helper is uncomfortable with grief or sadness, or other powerful feelings, and seeks to replace them with more socially acceptable feelings (or lack of feeling). In such situations, the very appeal to positive thinking is a sign of something lacking in the social network. It is a sign that we are unable to bear other people’s pain.

    But there are other ways of helping people through grief and other such mental trials.

    Positive thinking for social goals

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > social goals

    In contrast to the personal sphere, positive thinking is not so often recommended in the social sphere.

    Political programmes are almost always couched in negative terms. We have been taught to distrust positive thinking: there is supposed to be a contradiction between practical thinking and utopian thinking. Perhaps this is particularly true of the supposedly pragmatic Anglo-Saxons.

    The very word ‘utopia’ means ‘nowhere’. (Samuel Butler entitled his utopia Erehwon, which is ‘nowhere’ spelled backwards.) There is substantial debate as to whether utopia (the perfect society) is actually achievable. Arguments about ‘human nature’ abound. But many of the literary depictions of utopia are quite vivid, which makes them positive goals, at least in our sense.

    And a person can quite reasonably use a utopia as a vision to work towards, as a framework for practical piecemeal political action. There is only a possible contradiction if the utopian is also a revolutionary, and insists on all or nothing.

    To explore this further, we shall need to look at how political programmes are formulated and progressed, how coalitions form around clusters of related issues, and the effects of positive and negative thinking on social change.

    The one area of social activity where positive thinking is strongly advocated, of course, is in business management. Business leaders are supposed to offer positive vision for their organizations, expressed in mission statements, goals and strategies.

    Positive thinking for spiritual goals

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > spiritual goals

    Although we may be tempted to dismiss positive thinking as a vulgar materialism, we should acknowledge its application to spiritual ends. Indeed, the classic American work on Positive Thinking does not separate Christian ethics from business success. This association is of course nothing new - many sects, including the Puritans, have thought material wealth to be an outward sign of God’s favour.

    (In other words, hard work causes God to smile on us, which causes us to become wealthy. To suggest that the hard work might have caused the wealth directly, without God’s involvement, would have been regarded by some as blasphemous.)

    A much earlier advocate of positive thinking in a Christian context was St Ignatius of Loyola, who operated in the 16th century and was the founder of the Jesuit order. He was one of the intellectual leaders of the Counter-Reformation - the Catholic response to the Protestant breakaway. Whereas the early Protestant preachers concentrated rhetorically on hellfire and damnation (following Dante, whose vision of Hell was much more vivid and powerful than his vision of Paradise), the Catholic preachers were encouraged to use positive images of the embrace of Mother Church. Thus while Protestants were defined in terms of what they rejected (the very word "protest" being an emblem of their rejection), Catholics were defined in terms of what they accepted. It could then appear (at least to Catholics) as if all the corruptions and intolerances of pre-Reformation Christianity had been taken away by the negative-thinking Protestants. (After all, we are told, the Puritans went on persecuting heretics and witches, long after the Spanish Inquisition had hung up their robes.)

    In his Spiritual Exercises, Loyola recommends something like creative visualization to stimulate religious thoughts and feelings. Starting from a passage in the Bible, one contemplates the smallest visual details of the scene, almost as if one were about to direct a film of the Life of Jesus, or to design sets and costumes for such a film.

    However, Loyola shows a subtle understanding of the processes of thought, when he tell us not to contemplate our own sins in direct visual images, but to make use of visual imagination of a metaphorical sort (the soul imprisoned in the corruptible body). This is because he realises that if we think directly about our sins, we are likely to repeat them.

    The teaching of Jesus himself is very complex, and certainly includes some elements of positive thinking.

    Positive images

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > images

    Positive thinking, whether for material or spiritual goals, involves positive images. For our purposes, an image is a mental construct, which may be visual, auditory or kinæsthetic/tactile. Normal images are positive, in the sense that they depict something as presently existing rather than absent.

    It is impossible to perceive or imagine pure negation.

    You can imagine a chair disappearing, or you can imagine a chair with a big X through it. Sometimes we can imagine chairs in a half-existing state: a semi-transparent image may indicate the ghost of a chair. But to imagine a chair not being there, you have to first imagine the chair itself. An image has a beginning and an end; it has a location, and stands out against a background. All perception, or at least all conscious perception, relies on images that have these characteristics. "All perception - all conscious perception - has image characteristics. A pain is localized somewhere. It has a beginning and an end and a location and stands out against a background. These are the elementary components of an image. … However … very few people, at least in occidental culture, doubt the objectivity of such sense data as pain or their visual images of the external world. Our civilization is deeply based on this illusion." Positive images can make you feel bad as well as good. For a possessive person, the image of a partner being unfaithful is positive, and therefore powerful. Any denial, however sincere or indignant, serves not to reassure, not to reestablish trust, but to reinforce the internal image of unfaithfulness. Positive images can also prompt anti-social behaviour. Aggressive people find it easy to see the slightest signs of aggression in other people, to which they of course respond aggressively. They find it much more difficult to see any signs of non-aggression. Even an assertion of non-aggression may be interpreted as aggressive.

    Positive injunctions

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > injunctions

    We instruct our children and ourselves, and advise other adults. It is an observable fact that these injunctions are not symmetrical between the positive and the negative; positive injunctions are usually much more successful than negative ones. Hypnotists and successful salesmen exploit this all the time.

    Small children, and adults not paying attention, systematically ignore negation in language.

    There is a difference between telling a child to "Hold on tight!" and telling him "Don’t let go!". The positive injunction is much more likely to have the desired result than the negative one. This is not because the child is being ‘difficult’ with the adult, but because the adult is being ‘difficult’ with the child. The logical structure of the negative injunction is more complex, more difficult for the child’s brain, than that of the positive injunction. If you tell a child NOT to let go, it will fail to register the NOT, and will take this as a suggestion to let go.

    It seems as if the child’s brain analyses the injunction "Don’t let go!" into two parts: "Don’t!" - which is a generally emotive word for any child, associated with adult anger and dissatisfaction - and "Let go!", which is a simple suggestion the child can picture and obey, even though puzzled why the adult should suggest it. This is apparently because, in order to understand what you have said, the child has to make a mental image of letting go.

    An adult’s brain can usually cope with simple negations, unless there is a heavy emotional content. When distracted or under stress, an adult will often respond to negative injunctions such as "Don’t panic!" or "Don’t worry!" by having precisely the feelings mentioned.

    Influence and suggestion, even to adults, depend on the logical structure of the sentence. The more negative and frightening a linguistic formulation, the less the other will be willing to accept it and the sooner he will forget it. Positive and concrete formulations are preconditions of any successful influence.

    Most of us talk to ourselves (silently or aloud) at least some of the time. And when under stress, this inner voice increases. With negative thinking, this inner voice is making counter-productive suggestions - "This isn’t going to work.", "She’s not going to believe me.", "They are not going to like me." - suggestions which seem to cause things to go wrong. It is precisely this kind of negative thinking that has given negative thinking a bad reputation.

    Positive thinking, at the simplistic level, merely replaces these suggestions with their opposites - "This is going to work.", "She is going to believe me.", "They are going to like me." - in the hope of creating a self-fulfilling level of confidence.

    … The happiness in the tune
    Convinces me that I’m not afraid …

    Positive attitude

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > attitude

    According to positive thinking, there are several qualities that are good, and the more the better. These include confidence, creativity, rapport, assertiveness. Positive thinking supposedly promotes these qualities.

    There are many situations where a positive attitude, in this sense, contributes to success. It may often be a necessary condition for success; it may even sometimes be a sufficient condition to success. This is particularly true of social situations, and interpersonal interaction. But of course it doesn’t always work: sometimes you can be as positive and charming as hell, and the other person still rejects you and your message. There is a thin line between positive thinking and bullshit, and between confidence and complacency.

    Why does Positive Thinking Work?

    Neurophysical explanation - LeftBrain/RightBrain

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > LeftBrain RightBrain

    Positive thinking is sometimes justified by a theory of how the brain works. Put very simplistically, this theory is that the brain is divided into a Left Brain and a Right Brain. The Left Brain specializes in language and logic; the Right Brain specializes in pictures and emotion. (More generally, images which may be auditory or tactile/kinæsthetic, as well as visual.)

    (Note: we regard Right Brain and Left Brain merely as labels for different brain functions. We don’t really care where these functions are physically located under the skull.)

    Some people equate the Left Brain with the Conscious and the Right Brain with the Unconscious. However, this may simply be a result of the cultural dominance of language and logic, which makes us more conscious of the Left Brain than of the Right Brain, and more able to articulate its workings.

    Since negation is a logical concept, it is only understood by the Left Brain. You cannot have negative images (at least, not simple straightfoward ones). But since change requires motivation, and motivation comes from the Right Brain, you need a positive image to motivate the Right Brain to achieve change.

    Suppose someone wants to give up smoking. The more he thinks about not seeing the cigarette in his hand, not feeling and tasting the smoke in his throat, the more vivid the mental images of smoking become, which then frustrates the attempt to give up. This is one of a class of frustrations, including insomnia: the harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. (Is negative thinking always doomed to frustration? We shall see.)

    Some people think of the Right Brain (or the Unconscious) as illiterate - inspired but dumb, like Harpo Marx. This is much too simple. Many people report the presence of words in their dreams. Furthermore, people often have immediate physical reflex responses to certain words. We may therefore suppose that the Right Brain can recall and respond to words. What the Right Brain seems unable to do is to create or respond to syntax.

    (Lacan said that the Unconscious was structured like a language. But if this is so, it is a language with a defective syntax, at least if we judge by conventional Left Brain standards.)

    For the Left Brain, negation is purely a syntactical construct, as are other logical words such as always and impossible. This syntactic meaning of negation is inaccessible to the Right Brain. Thus the Right Brain must either ignore little words like ‘not’ or respond to them as pure affect. Let us explore these two possibilities.

    When I had been working in Bilbao for some months, I had learned enough Spanish words to understand some of what people said around me. When I understood most of the words in a sentence, I could often make a reasonably accurate guess as to what the whole sentence meant. However, sometimes my guesses would be wildly inaccurate, because I had missed one small word that entirely modified the meaning. Our first idea, then, is that the Right Brain ignores the little words; it filters out all the words it cannot translate into images, and attempts to work out the meaning of the remainder. We call this the filtration theory of how the Right Brain responds to language. Since the Right Brain systematically filters out all logical modifiers, such as negation, this would explain why it systematically misinterprets negative thoughts.

    But this filtration theory, although useful, doesn’t tell the whole story. The Right Brain does not ignore negation, but responds to it in its own way. To understand this, consider the way a person learns language. Concrete words ("dog", "dinner", "drop", "dark") are learned by associating particular concrete experiences with the sound (and later the appearance) of the word. For example, the word "dog" is usually spoken in a calm voice, in the presence of dogs or pictures of dogs. The child slowly works out what is common to the occurrences of the word "dog", experiments with the word himself, is gently corrected when he uses the word wrongly, and so learns what the word "dog" means. The word "dog" may not actually trigger a conscious image of dogginess, as some philosophers once thought, but its meaning is still somehow connected to experiences of dogs, and to the experience of distinguishing between dogs and other animals.

    (If the parent has an irrational fear of dogs, however, the child will hear the word "dog" spoken in a troubled tone of voice; this will give the child the opportunity, if he so desires, to inherit the fear of dogs.)

    When we imagine the same process applied to abstract words like "not" or "don’t", it is surely more difficult for the child to identify what the occurrences of these words have in common. The most obvious common factor may be the angry or anguished tone of voice in which the word is uttered. This is the first experience of negation, and perhaps for many people it remains a significant (although unconscious) part of their response to these words.

    As the child matures, this first experience of negation is overlaid with other meanings. The child discovers that he can use the word to control his younger siblings, or even occasionally his parents. The emotional meaning of negation gets much more complex, perhaps even with pleasant feelings mixed with unpleasant ones. According to conventional accounts, teenage explorations of sex often involve the word "Don’t!" spoken by the girl to the boy, when they are both in a state of high arousal. (If this is true, there may well be a statistical difference between adult males and adult females, in their response to negation.)

    But it is still this emotional meaning that the Right Brain responds to, rather than the logical meaning.

    Thus whereas the Left Brain uses the word ‘not’ to reverse the meaning of something, the Right Brain either ignores the word ‘not’ altogether, or uses it to add a layer of emotion.

    The Left Brain and the Right Brain can each accuse the other of fragmentation. Each sees the products of the other as fragmented: the Right Brain appears logically or causally fragmented from the Left Brain’s perspective; the Left Brain appears visually or holistically fragmented, or emotionally crippled, from the Right Brain’s perspective. The Left Brain uses quotation marks, while the Right Brain uses metaphor and analogy.

    It follows that post-modern works of art, which are self-consciously fragmented, derive in a complex way from the Two Brains of the artist or architect, and appeal in equally complex ways to the Two Brains of the spectator or critic.

    Case example: religion and popular culture

    negative thinking > power of positive thinking > religion & popular culture

    We all know that there is a difference between an emotional reaction and a logical reaction. In this section, I want to show exactly how this difference manifests itself, and suggest that this difference is specifically to do with the inability of the Right Brain (the emotional/visual part of the brain) to understand negation. I shall illustrate this with some examples from popular culture.

    Portrayal of religious stories in popular culture is a dangerous business. The book of the Last Temptation of Christ earned the author both honour and excommunication; the film was attacked by nuns. In this section, I want to pay particular attention to two works - Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses, and Monty Python’s Life of Brian - because they both employ a similar device to escape danger, and the device fails them in the same way.

    One of the main causes for complaint against Satanic Verses was that it portrayed the Prophet’s wives as whores. Actually, if a Left Brain reads the book carefully, it is clear that the women who were whores were not the Prophet’s wives, but merely happened to have the same names. One of the main causes for complaint against the Life of Brian was that Brian was a parody of Jesus Christ, although if a Left Brain watches the film carefully, it is clear that Brian is not Jesus. (Indeed, the film can then be seen as an attack on foolish people who cannot distinguish between Brian and Jesus.)

    Look at those two small words: not, not. Inserted by clever men educated at Cambridge University, and completely ignored or discounted by the outraged Moslems and Christians. Of course the outraged people have Left Brains as well as Right Brains, the intelligent ones (if they have actually read the book or seen the film) are aware of that little not. But for the purposes of their reaction, they discount it. "Of course Rushdie/Python may insert this clever little not to escape our anger, but we are not fooled. It is obvious what the book/film is really saying, and we are not distracted by this post-modern cleverness."

    In other words, the fundamentalists’ reaction is a Right Brain reaction. Their passion is necessarily connected to their ignoring the negation. But this is not merely an emotional reaction; it is not just what the fundamentalist feels that is important, but the fact that the fundamentalist perceives the book/film as blasphemous.
    more Left Brain/RightBrain Balance

    Page last updated on August 1st, 2003
    Copyright © 2001-3, Richard Veryard