Rethinking Positive Thinking

by Stephen Mills on November 24, 2011

I now believe that much of the current propaganda about positive thinking is at minimum misguided and likely counter-productive for many people.  It amounts to self-help snake oil.  This represents a change in my own beliefs brought about by my own experience, my observations of others, and a lot of reading and thinking about it.

Action Is More Important Than Attitude

What matters is not your attitude but your actions.  When I looked in the mirror 18 months ago I didn’t see a body I thought was perfect. I saw an aging body that was overweight without being obese, but flabby and out of shape. I was angry at myself for letting myself go like that and risking my future well-being. Should I have looked at myself in the mirror and said “You’re beautiful” (when I knew I was not) and “You’re perfect just the way you are”? I don’t think so. My negative and honest thinking spurred me on to do something about it. I’m still out of shape but I’m 45 pounds lighter and I’ve kept it that way for over 6 months. I didn’t say daily affirmations. I didn’t “manifest” a perfect body.  I didn’t imagine a body I would never have. I simply changed my diet and stuck with it, even though at times it hurt a lot.  I substituted positive and determined action for positive thinking.  I thought negatively and lost the weight, but far more importantly made a permanent change in my diet that improved my health.

We Are All Different

We humans are very different from one another in our personalities and in general about 1/2 of that difference is genetic.  This is also true for the trait of optimism and researchers have linked some of that to a gene for oxytocin.  It seems absurd that some general advice that is so hardwired into people can simply be changed by “Thinking Positive” and that the results would be “positively” the same for all our dramatically different natures.  How much harm has been done to people who think they are defective in some way because they have failed to change themselves into a positive thinker; something that may be very difficult if not impossible for them?  It’s easy for some people to maintain low body fat and it is next to impossible for others.  It’s no different for personality including an optimistic or pessimistic outlook.

I have never considered myself a generally optimistic person and in every test I’ve ever taken my results show a pretty pessimistic personality type.  I’m cynical and sarcastic by nature.  I get angry, especially at stupidity in myself and others.  I’m sure some of this is learned but some of it is also just the way I was wired from birth.  I’ve tried to be more positive and to some to degree I’ve been successful.  But at bottom I can’t simply change my personality and I’m not sure I want to anymore.  I don’t see how it helps me or anyone else.

Looking on the Bright Side

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.  I’m not telling you it’s healthy to be negative about everything, and who likes to be around someone who is constantly bitching and complaining?   I’ve done a lot to shut off my negative self-talk and rumination.  I’ve mostly stopped constantly replaying things that piss me off over and over in my mind.  I’ much more accepting of what is without lying to myself about reality.  I’m much calmer, more relaxed, and more satisfied than I’ve ever been before.  But I’m not a fake positive thinker and I never will be.

I think it is good to not be attached to outcomes.  I think it is wise to accept what is without necessarily being satisfied with it.  It’s critical that you don’t become a victim of circumstances that are out of your control.  It’s a great learning experience to extract lessons from your failures.  But…

If You Are a Real Person, Life is Not Perfect

Sometimes things just suck and are not perfect regardless of what Leo Babauta says.  It’s OK to not be positive when life throws you a screwball.  I don’t think it is healthy to say otherwise and I notice this usually comes from people who have reached a point in their lives where it is easy for them to say that to others.  Everything wasn’t perfect for Leo when he was in debt, out of shape, overweight, smoking, working multiple jobs etc.  Now that he changed a lot of that he tells us that everything is always perfect and we should think the same way.  Well I disagree and to insist otherwise is to lie to yourself.

A Little Optimism Goes a Long Way

I’m pretty sure that optimistic people have less stress and live longer.  I’m not sure they are more successful in other ways.  I’m also not sure that a naturally pessimistic person who tries to be positive all the time would live any longer.  The stress of going against his nature may kill him sooner.  This is the part that is missed in a lot of the bull that is peddled nowadays.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is to kill the unnecessary negativity, but to live within your nature.  It’s probably a good idea to be a little more positive than you should be given your situation, but not so much that you lie to yourself about anything important.  If I’m going to die from pancreatic cancer it doesn’t help me to pretend that everything is perfect.

Like everything else I’m not really sure about all this.  However, I think the positive thinking approach has gone too far.  I’ve tried it and it didn’t work for me.  I think I’m happier (?) being the crank I was born to be without being overly obsessive or ruminating on the negative.  I get over being upset much faster than I used to and I don’t get upset nearly as often either.  I’ve learned that shit happens and that I should just move on.  The very best thing I ever did was drop my attachment to outcomes.  If things don’t work out the way I wish (and they almost never do), then I try to take it in stride and just go on after making the appropriate adjustments.

It’s OK to be negative if that’s the way you are, just don’t over do it.  Try to use those negative feelings as motivation to do something different.

Happy Thanksgiving to all you Americans who are celebrating today.


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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave November 24, 2011 at 9:47 am

Great post! I just finished a book that closely matches your sentiments. It was titled “S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move On)” It has definitely made a change in my thinking. Thanks for the post!


Nara June 20, 2012 at 3:16 am

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Stephen Mills November 24, 2011 at 10:42 am

Hello Dave and thanks. I’m always on the look out for different or quirky books and I like the looks of that one. I’ll definitely check it out.


Vernon November 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

This is really a nice post Step! After I read all the content it made me realized of something and I remember the movie. V for vendetta a good movie to watch. It quite similar in post sentiment.
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charotzz November 29, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Very well said. It just came to me that it’s not making a turn from being grumpy to a being positive person can make you live long, its going with your nature, you just can’t go against your flow though it pays to be positive. I just came to realize that it’s not doing the opposite that makes it worthwhile and the stress of going against our nature may kill us. Thanks for a very well said post.
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Amber November 30, 2011 at 3:42 am

Positive thinking is the one thing that sets one person apart from another: It allows them to visualize how they are to attain their goals, not just the end results. In addition, someone with a positive mental picture of themselves is not only more successful financially, but are more healthy physically. In contrast, those people who think negatively, or don’t believe what they are doing are destined for a life of failure, ill health, unhappiness, are are likely to draw those same type of people into their personal and professional life. If you want to be happy and healthy, please focus on what you do really well; you’ll find it easy to remain positive if you can face things from a position of strength.
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Dayna Nickle December 4, 2011 at 1:27 am

I agree withh you i read all the content it made me realized of something and I remember the movie.Positive thinking is the one thing that sets one person apart from another: Keep up good work.
Dayna Nickle´s last blog post ..Forex


P December 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Wow, talk about timely.

I’ve been embracing my cynical nature lately, but trying to reduce the negativity that’s usually associated with cynicism. I just started re-working my blog to take it in this direction (although it’s far from ready for the public).

I think cynicism is a valid way to react to the world. By the same token, I think unbridled optimism borders on delusion. But, as an American, I live in a country that is culturally optimistic; which means if you are not optimistic, there’s something wrong with you.

I’m a cynical person by nature. There’s nothing wrong with me. All of the optimism hoopla is really annoying, especially from the rainbow and flowerdoodle lifestyle designers out there. Optimism does not make someone successful. Optimism or cynicism are worldviews—they have no power. The principles of success work just as well for a cynic or pessimist as they do for an optimist, as long as you follow them. That’s why they’re principles.

I don’t want to be optimistic. I don’t want to one day be imprisoned in a deathcamp and tell myself everything is okay. I’d rather just say “This sucks.”


Jacq December 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm

You might like Adam Phillips’ books.

I haven’t read “Going Sane” but it looks good.
Jacq´s last blog post ..Running the Numbers


Jacq December 5, 2011 at 6:21 pm
Mark Steward December 12, 2011 at 10:48 am

It just came to me that it’s not making a turn from being grumpy to a being positive person can make you live long, its going with your nature, you just can’t go against your flow though it pays to be positive, thanks for the great post, keep sharing .
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Margoax January 2, 2012 at 8:01 am

This is really inspirational and I want to thank you for the nice post here..
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JennyGreyson January 12, 2012 at 5:51 am

I’m always saying to my self that in every path that I choose, There’s such a challenge that may I take. I’m facing all of these with confidence and positive thought’s to overcome all of these. Until now, Behind all my success is a positive attitude I acquire.
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Pique Dan May 8, 2015 at 3:35 am

Congratulations on getting into shape.
Positive thinking does not just mean — Think Positive.
The right phrase would be “getting what you want thinking ”
and you seem to have that because action is the key to change.
That boring work which no one wants to do and seems useless.
“I’m just gonna exercise no matter what “- this is not a negative thought.
Whatever it is , it’s gonna change you if you stick with it for a year at the least.
You’ve learnt a lot and thought a lot.Don’t give up on optimism.It takes time to learn it fully and reap its rewards like anything that is significant in life.
Pique Dan´s last blog post ..Let us love before we die


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