Few people these days would believe in a medicine that could cure all diseases, yet many people, it seems, believe in the mental cure-all of positive thinking. Thinking positively will make you happy, healthy, successful, a good parent, a good daughter, a good citizen, a good employee, a good business person; all the rewards of life will be yours.
The industry around positive thinking is so broad and pervasive that it often seems immune to criticism. It even has an in-built criticism deflector: being critical isn’t being positive, so anyone being critical obviously doesn’t get it. This logically circular defensive position doesn’t stand up to an outside observer, but many people are inside, and there it works just fine. Those questioning the politics of the industry have struggled to break through this barrier, but there are other grounds for questioning the power of positive thinking: the evidence for it is not as strong as often claimed, not by a long way.
The dark side of the industry is that its mirror image often appears to be victim blaming
The positive thinking industry first grew into a big business with authors and speakers such as Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale, who made millions selling books based more on personal anecdote than evidence. You can change your life by thinking differently, they said. Just think positive and everything else will fall into line. This grew into a fully-fledged industry in the 1970s and 80s as more and more people pursued the notion that one’s first duty is to improve oneself. The self-help sections of bookshops are now full of books that repeat the same message, most notably in recent years Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. You can be anything you want to be, says the positive thinking industry, the only barrier to your success is your own thinking. Think positively and good things will flow to you.
This way of thinking has grown so strong it has begun to permeate every corner of our culture. It is rife within the business world, particularly the sales and marketing arms of business. It is visible in the non-profit sector’s attempts at campaigning through cheerleading. Dreamwork’s Kung Fu Panda provides an example of quite how far this has sunk into our culture: you can be anything you want, it says, if you just believe it; you can be a kung fu master even though you are a panda. Much more worryingly, UK jobcentre staff seem to have become adherents of the positive thinking industry[i], even sending jobseekers on courses using the bogus science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)[ii], which dabbles heavily in the magical powers of positivity. And here we note the dark side of the industry: its mirror image often appears to be victim blaming. If you can change your life by thinking differently, your failure to change your life is entirely your own fault.
Positive thinking will not help you if you are black an your interviewer is racist
Like most ideologies that gain ascendancy for a while, there is a kernel of truth to the positive thinking industry’s ideas. Both psychological studies and your own experience will show you that you can make yourself feel happier by focusing on what is going well in your life rather than what is going badly. Gratitude for the good things in your life focuses attention on those good things and makes you feel better about your life as a whole. Having a positive attitude about the outcome when you go into, say, an interview, can increase your chances of success. And imagining positive futures for yourself can help you strive to make those futures happen. The respectable end of the positive thinking industry, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), tries to take advantage of the tricks we can play on our brain by challenging negative thought patterns and replacing them with positive ones.
But it is easy to spot the limits of these methods too. Positive thinking will not help you if you are starving or the bailiff is knocking at your door. Positive thinking will not help you if you are black and your interviewer is racist. Nor will positive thinking help you become, say, a top news presenter, if your abusive background has gifted you lasting emotionally instability that prevents you working in a high-pressure environment.
The ideas are packaged and re-packaged and re-sold using methods ranging from the simple to the ever more sophisticated
Despite this, there’s no doubt that there is some truth to the value of positivity. The problem for the positive thinking industry is that this simple kernel of useful ideas can be written out in a few pages. There is however little money to be made in doing so. So the ideas are packaged and re-packaged and re-sold using methods ranging from the simple to the ever more sophisticated. Books, seminars, business motivation, workshops, health interventions, courses that promise to change your life. It’s difficult to refute the testimony of people who have had success with these methods, but the same is often true of faith healing. As a subset of the happiness industry written of by William Davies, the positive thinking industry is distinct in being largely imposed on people by themselves. We have little evidence about the sustainability of the changes, and the people for whom positive thinking doesn’t work. We surely need to address this before allowing government departments to mandate it to people.
Among the most well-known critics of positive thinking is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book ‘Bright-sided’ explores the development of positive thinking, particularly in the United States. Ehrenreich first encountered the full force of the industry when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and from there she began to explore the strange contours of the industry whose only product is happiness. She immediately spotted some of the more egregious problems of this industry, and is particularly scathing about the use of positive thinking by ‘restructuring’ companies. Here positive thinking is undoubtedly used in the most cynical manner possible: to keep people’s spirits up while their colleagues get screwed over, in the name of productivity.
The evidence for the efficacy of positive thinking is astonishingly scant
So wildly evidence-free is much of the positive thinking industry that Ehrenreich barely bothers to refute many of its claims, though she has a few stern words to say about the use of quantum physics to tell people that they can control their environments with their minds. But she does begin to examine the evidence in one part of the industry where we would expect evidence to matter. Positive psychology is the branch of psychology, both academic and practising, that deals with the apparently almost magical mind-over-matter powers of the human brain. You can now go and do courses with psychologists with genuine qualifications, in which you can learn how to think more positively in order to turn your life (or company) around.
There’s just one problem. The evidence for the efficacy of positive thinking is astonishingly scant. This will surprise many casual readers of the self-help literature, who will be used to seeing claims that ‘science has proved that people who smile more will be more successful in life’ or ‘studies show that people who have three or more positive thoughts an hour are more likely to live a happy fulfilled life’ (these are made-up quotes – the claims are all much of a muchness). These studies do exist, but the vast majority of them show only correlation, not causation. If we assume the causation works the other way around, ‘People who are more successful smile more’ or ‘People living a happy, fulfilled life are more likely to have positive thoughts’, we are suddenly arrested by the sheer banality of the observations. We find ourselves not facing some deep, underlying truth of the universe (The Secret!) but in the territory of the toilet habits of bears.
Large studies don’t always reveal what the positive thinking evangelists assume
Sparked by my own and Ehrenrich’s scepticism, I began to dig into the evidence myself. How many studies on positive thinking do show causation rather mere correlation? Shockingly few, it turns out. The longitudinal studies required to rigorously show causation are expensive and difficult so not many have been done. What’s more, it turns out that large studies don’t always reveal what the positive thinking evangelists assume[iii] or show at best mixed results[iv]. Some even show evidence in the other direction: that there can be benefits to a certain amount of pessimism.
The best meta-analysis available[v] of positive psychology interventions has seen strong criticism from James Coyne, a Professor of Health Psychology[vi] and vocal critic of the evidence-light nature of positive psychology. His entire criticism is worth a read, and it turns out that many of the included studies have low sample sizes and have never been repeated. But perhaps the strongest criticism is contained within the meta-analysis itself, then brushed over: the authors admit that the lower the quality of the study, the more likely it was to show positive thinking in a positive light.
Feeling good helps you see the good in life! And seeing the good in life helps you feel good!
Another oft-cited meta-analysis, Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms With Positive Psychology Interventions: A Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis[vii], gets even shorter shrift from Coyne, who shows that the authors failed to adhere to the most basic standards of meta-analysis, including failing to rate the studies for quality[viii].
But let’s look too at a favorite of the positive psychology field, Fredrickson’s ‘broaden-and-build’ theory, which, summarized, states that positive emotions can initiate a cycle of positive emotions and outcomes[ix]. The value of this seems debatable: isn’t it the emotional equivalent of it being easy to get richer if you’re already rich? Or in the words of Frederikson[x]:
“Importantly, the relationship between positive meaning and positive emotions is considered reciprocal: finding positive meaning not only triggers positive emotion, but also positive emotions—because they broaden thinking—should increase the likelihood of finding positive meaning in subsequent events.”(Fredrickson 2000)
It speaks volumes of the literature of positive thinking that this is seen as deep or ‘important’, rather than, once more, obvious and banal. Feeling good helps you see the good in life! And seeing the good in life helps you feel good! Thanks Doc, but I’m feeling kind of low right now; this isn’t helping. The idea is, of course, that one can replace a negative outlook with a positive mental spiral by making an intervention. But human minds are complex things and don’t operate simply on positive and negative settings. There is no recognition of the complexity of human psychology here, and it seems unlikely that a forced positivity will be much substitute for the real thing.
There is evidence for the effectiveness of some interventions, but even that often looks a little thin: Seligman, a father-figure in the positive psychology movement, offers a 2005 study in which three out of five methods had some lasting impact. While this seems to offer something at least, the note on the sample method used – self-selected visitors to Seligman’s website – is worth reading several times[xi]:
“Although our study is the most ambitious random assignment placebo controlled test of happiness interventions we know, our interventions are documented only on a convenience sample. This population was largely well-educated, White, and financially comfortable. Furthermore, they were mildly depressed and motivated to become happier.”
If the best that one of the leaders of positive psychology has to offer seems like not much, most of the positive thinking industry doesn’t even bother with evidence, except in passing. It is necessary to address it however because that ‘in passing’ is important: if you challenge the positive thinking fad, you are always told it is based on science. The reality is more complex: there is some science around it, which is very limited, not to say often contradictory.
The point here is not to show that none of the techniques of positive thinking work – they can and do at times. We can all recognize that if you focus on the area of your life that is going well, rather than an area going badly, you can make the best of a bad job. But discovering the extent of this effect, and the question of whether this translates into longer-term happiness, are much more difficult.
Individuals are much easier to keep under control than collectives, and victim-blaming ensures the rulers themselves don’t get blamed
There is also an elephant lurking in the room in the less scientific and more commercial end of the positive thinking industry: an assumption that clearly external problems can be magicked away with the power of your mind, or can be surmounted by great feats of positivity. To read some of this literature you’d think you could make clouds dissolve with your mind (spoiler: you can’t).
So we come to one of the key objections to positive thinking as panacea: the industry assumes that all problems are individual problems and all solutions individual solutions. The problems of the world can disappear if you only think in the right way. Comedian Simon Amstell is an adherent of this kind of magic[xii]. ‘There was no injustice,’ he says of an incorrect household bill in his routine Do Nothing, ‘It was all in my head.’ And so we return to the positive thinking mania of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the implicit victim blaming going on. If you don’t have a job, it’s your fault, not the fault of irreducible unemployment, an economic crisis caused by others, or government policy, or globalized trade. You don’t have to be rampantly left wing to think of this as factually incorrect, but if you have some political awareness you can’t help also seeing this as a useful tool for the powerful. Individuals are much easier to keep under control than collectives, and victim-blaming ensures the rulers themselves don’t get blamed.
It raises the question of whether the positive thinking industry is in some sense ‘designed’ for those already on top: straight white males blessed with money and the self-confidence that comes with sparse self-knowledge. We could hypothesize that positive thinking works very well if you’re one of them already. If you aren’t, perhaps it merely strengthens that group while sapping your own limited energies.
There is other harm too that may be done by the industry. This is Oliver Burkeman in ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’:
“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”
The alternative to the positive thinking industry is not a world of unrelenting grimness. That kernel of truth the positive industry leans so heavily upon remains. It often does us good to try and see the positive side of things, and to imagine positive outcomes in our futures. But this needs to be leavened with what, for want of a better term, we might call the ‘reality’ of the environment in which we live. Gabriele Oetingen, author of ‘Rethinking Positive Thinking’, offers an idea called ‘mental contrasting’. Go ahead with the positive thinking, she says, then balance it out with an assessment of the facts about the environment in which you are operating, your own skills, and so on. It is a blend of the two that will take you together most reliably. And of course this leaves open the possibility that if we get together with others, we can change not only ourselves but also the external facts through action. This is not a path that the DWP would ever recommend, and perhaps that is recommendation enough.
[ii] See for instance free2learn’s Employability Programme for graduates.
[iii] See for instance Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future? Lang, Weiss, Gerstorf, wagner, 2013
[iv] E.g. Optimism and immunity: Do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects?, Segerstrom 2007
[v] Positive psychology interventions: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies.
[vii] Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms With Positive Psychology Interventions: A Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis, Sin, Lyubomirsky, 2009, http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/wp-content/themes/sonjalyubomirsky/papers/SL2009.pdf
[ix] Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being.
[x] The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, Fredrickson, 2004 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693418/pdf/15347528.pdf
Image: Chris Devers