Positive thinking: Pro and con

In a book entitled The antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking (2012), Oliver Burkeman argues that positive thinking has its limitations.

Another book along the same lines is The power of negative thinking: Using “defensive pessimism” to manage anxiety and perform at your peak (2001) by Julie K. Norem.

Among books that have a somewhat different take on the matter at hand are The biology of belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness, matter and miracles (2008) and Measuring the immeasurable: The scientific case for spirituality (2008).

A different take is also featured in The happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work (2010).

I prefer to look at things within a positive framework, while keeping in mind the points that authors such as Burkeman and Norem seek to communicate.


I had the experience in my early twenties of coming across a book by Maxwell Maltz entitled Psycho-cybernetics (1966).

Whatever the merits of the book may be, I took away from it an approach to language and thought that I’ve maintained ever since.

Maltz advised the reader to express things in positive terms – that is, to focus in life on positive outcomes, instead of framing things in negative terms. I very much like the idea of focusing on what works, on what can be done to move a project forward.

I think there is tremendous value in having a positive attitude. That said, the positive psychology movement – as exemplified, at any rate, by writers such as Martin Seligman – at times leaves me dubious.

It’s a matter of how things are framed. With regard to framing of situations, I’m very impressed with Erving Goffman’s symbolic interactionist perspective. Goffman’s research communicates the fact that occasionally reality obtrudes when we try to put a positive face on things that are not inherently positive. I think, in this regard, of cases of fraudulent activity, a topic that Goffman approach in his study of confidence games and similar pursuits.

Cognitive restructuring

I’d like to share a few thoughts about what I’ve learned about thinking.

First, I’ve found it helpful to engage in systematic cognitive restructuring, so that my thoughts are organized in a positive framework. I learned this technique twenty-five years ago and now apply it pretty much without further thought.

By way of example, I used to regularly have a recurring negative thought years ago whenever I had agreed to make a presentation. The thought would be, “Why did I ever agree to make this presentation?”

I learned a procedure based upon the use of an index card. I would draw a vertical line down the middle of the card, and I would write down, on the right-hand side, the negative thought. For example, I would write down “Why did I ever agree to make this presentation?”

Then I would sit down and figure out an alternative positive thought, that I could tell myself each time the negative thought came along. In this case, the alternative positive thought might be something like: “This is a wonderful opportunity to see how close I can get to speaking at 120 syllables per minute, during the course of this presentation.”

I’ve found such a procedure has been highly helpful. I’m also aware that there’s a lot of research, and has been for many decades, indicating that such an approach to cognitive restructuring is an effective strategy for many people seeking to deal with less-than-positive recurring thoughts and feelings.

I’ve also been engaged in mindfulness meditation, in a beginner capacity, for nine years. Occasionally I experience mindfulness – conscious awareness of the here and now – in the course of my daily life. I’ve noticed that if a bothersome – negative – thought arises, there’s no value in trying to avoid it or to push it away. Better to attend to it. Once attended to, the thought goes on its way.

Mental fog

I’ve long had an interest in the work of David Spangler, as described in a previous blog post.

In a book entitled Apprenticed to spirit: The education of a soul (2011), Spangler speaks of a layer of negative and down-beat thoughts, imagery, and feelings encircling the planet. His description of this space appeals to me. Whatever you, as a reader, may happen to think of the concept is your call, of course.


A useful reference is:

Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (2014).

I’ve discussed the above noted book at this blog post.

A Jan. 11, 2015 CBC Spark podcast is entitled: “Why our brains respond to positive affirmations.”


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