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Case Against Positive Thinking

Posted 2/17/2015

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  As I tried to clean out some files this morning, I came across a terrific article from The Wall Street Journal by Angela Chen about the dangers of positive thinking. For years, for decades, I have talked with patients about the dangers of the popular injunctions regarding the necessity of positive thoughts. When life is tough, when you are dealing with cancer, when you are perhaps feeling crummy from treatment, you just can't always do it. And that is fine.

  The most important thing to remember is that there is absolutely no evidence that the contents of your thought or your outlook make a whit of difference to your cancer health. Yes, we all know about the mind/body connection, but cancer is far more complicated than that. (note: see previous blogs about the wisdom of reading The Emperor of All Maladies  for a good understanding of this). If it were only true: that if we sustain happy thoughts and skip through life, we will stay well, and always survive cancer, don't you think our doctors would be telling us about this approach?

  From my therapist perspective, it is far more important to be able to honestly identify and express your feelings, to acknowledge that this can be really hard going, and to give yourself a break.  Ms. Chen's article is much broader than cancer, but it applies. Read this:

The Case Against Positive Thinking

By Angela Chen

Positive thinking is touted as the key that unlocks success (remember “The Secret”, which the Oprah Winfrey‘s show helped make an international best-seller?), but it turns out that an overwhelmingly rosy outlook can keep us from achieving our goals, according to psychologist Gabriele Oettingen.

At the physiological level, positive thinking—measured by its effect on blood pressure—relaxes us and drains us of motivation. In one of Dr. Oettingen’s studies, obese participants who fantasized about successfully losing weight lost 24 pounds less than those who refrained from doing so. In another, people in a business skills class who had positive fantasies missed class more and had lower grades at the end.

In Rethinking Positive Thinking, out this month from Penguin Random House, the New York University researcher discusses the pitfalls of unbridled positivity and suggests an alternative: a technique called “mental contrasting.” In separate studies, students using mental contrasting scored 10% higher on quizzes, and adults using the technique were 30% more likely to exercise, both when compared to people who only engaged in positive thinking.


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