“It is a well-defined and authentic principle that what the mind profoundly expects it tends to receive,” proclaims Norman Vincent Peale, author of the Power of Positive Thinking.
The concept of powerful optimism is as old as the Bible itself. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus summarizes affirmations, saying “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Does Optimism Really Help?
However timeless, the principle has gained notoriety in recent years. When psychologist Michael F. Scheier came out with the groundbreaking 1984 study, “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies” in Health Psychology, it was the first of its kind from the field.
According to the Atlantic, In the past year hundreds of academics have published papers demonstrating the health effects of “expecting good things to happen, known by professionals as ‘dispositional optimism.”
As Scheier notes, prior to his study only testimonials were available, but no concrete evidence to show a significant difference in the lives of optimists vs. pessimists.
At this point, he concludes, “We know why optimists do better than pessimists. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation.”
Positive Thinking Isn’t a Magic Bullet
The power of positive thinking is not a magic cure-all. It must be tempered with real world rationality and proactive steps to ensure success. The New York Times reported on a case earlier this year in which 21 of Tony Robbins’ retreat goers were treated for burns after trying to walk across hot coals, imagining them to be “cool moss.”
The same article addressed a study by psychologists at the University of Waterloo which found that affirmations tend to “make people with low self-esteem feel worse,” and research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, showed visualization of a desired outcome may, in fact, lead to a less satisfactory result.
Can Trying to Be Positive Actually Hurt?
Livescience.com reported on some of the controversy surrounding the notion that optimism can in fact yield improved health. James Coyne, director of the behavioral oncology program at the Abramson Cancer Center, remains a skeptic.
While admitting that negative emotions may have a strong impact on the incidence of heart attacks and cancer, he warned against putting too much stock in pressuring individuals to repress their emotions. Coyne noted, “I have a colleague who’s studied this and it’s very clear from his work that it’s just as stressful to keep up a performance of positivity as it is to [keep up] a bad mood. It’s very stressful to be inauthentically upbeat all the time.”
Answer: Just Carry a Healthy Attitude
While the data may not be positively conclusive, there is evidence to support that a healthy attitude can make a difference.
If you’re interested in trying it yourself, here are some tips:
According to success coach, Peter C. Remington, Instead of making a “To Do” list, make a “To Be” list.
Think about who you need to become in order to do the things you need to do. Write it down, focus on a few key characteristics and meditate on them daily.
The Mayo Clinic advises to watch for ‘filtering’ or only focusing on the negatives in any situation. For example, when looking in the mirror it’s easy to dwell on the few unflattering aspects of your figure. Try shifting your perspective toward being grateful for the positive attributes of your reflection and gain a healthier body image overall.
Seek help. Trying to change your thoughts on your own can be a daunting task. If a therapist isn’t in your budget joining a local support group, such as 12- step program. Taking a ‘one day at a time’ approach can make practicing the task much more achievable.
Be genuine in your approach. As Coyne said, pressuring yourself to feel something you don’t can just make you feel worse. Instead, try identifying beliefs you already hold that reinforce a positive attitude. For example, write down some things you genuinely value about yourself and think about how they may lead you to accomplish the goals you are currently aspiring to.
Has positive thinking made a difference in your life? Let us know!