Southern Star: The dangers of 'positive' thinking

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star CBT column on the dangers of positive thinking.
Books like The Secret offer advice that can do more harm than good.

Some self-help books offer potentially harmful advice on positive thinking, as I noted in in last week's Your Mental Health column in The Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.


It’s better to view the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, but be warned: an excessive focus on positive thinking is not good for your mental health.


In particular, I’m thinking of some of the advice doled out in popular self-help books that preach the gospel of positive thinking – books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, the late Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The three books, which have sold millions of copies, are often recommended by concerned, well-meaning people to friends or family who may be experiencing depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, they often do more harm than good (continued below)...

‘Positive thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” in the absence of evidence or even in the face of contrary evidence”, cautions psychologist Martin Seligman. Louise Hay, for example, recommended readers recite positive affirmations such as ‘All is well in my world. Everything is working out for my highest good’, ‘I live in the perfect space’, and ‘I always work with and for wonderful people. I love my job.’ The Secret, too, is full of affirmations, many of them materialistic (‘You will attract everything you require – money, people, connections’). One affirmation featured in a trailer for the movie version is, ‘Everything I touch turns to gold’. A man then touches a statue; it turns golden.


We’re told our thoughts determine our physical health. "Illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts”, writes Rhonda Byrne. “We create every illness in our body”, according to Louise Hay. “Releasing resentment will dissolve even cancer” (she claimed to have cured herself of cancer in the 1970s). Venereal disease, she said, is linked to sexual guilt; kidney stones are caused by “lumps of undissolved anger”; Alzheimer’s is linked to a “refusal to deal with the world as it is”; rheumatoid arthritis to “feeling victimized” and “chronic bitterness”.




There are many problems with these ideas. Firstly, they’re absolute nonsense, as any medial professional will confirm. Secondly, they are ultimately immoral, implicitly blaming people for having brought physical and mental health problems upon themselves. 'The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts', writes Rhonda Byrne. 'Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact'. Tell that to cancer patients, or the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust, or the Irish people who starved during the Famine. Bob Proctor, a positive thinking guru often quoted in The Secret, was asked if children starving to death in Darfur had 'attracted that starvation to themselves'. His reply: 'I think the country probably has.'


Unsurprisingly, psychologists have no time for such thinking. Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the separate field of positive psychology, but he warns the advice given in many popular positive thinking books ‘could even be fatal in the wrong circumstances’. The late cognitive therapist Albert Ellis warned books like The Power of Positive Thinking were dangerous and unrealistic; their message ‘lead to failure and disillusionment, and not only boomerang back against people, but often prejudice them against effective therapy’.



Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) emphasises the link between our thoughts, feelings and actions, noting that negative thinking is linked to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. However, that doesn’t mean CBT is about positive thinking. The aim of CBT is to promote a ‘realistic evaluation’ of thoughts, to quote Oxford CBT expert Prof. David Westbrook. ‘We don't aim to show that people are “wrong” or that things are actually positive.’ When people have problems, adds Westbrook, their thinking may be excessively negative, but sometimes it is accurate – someone ‘may think his partner is not interested in him because his partner is not interested in him!’ 


To repeat what I said at the outset: yes, it’s better to view the glass as half-full rather than half-empty and to recognise the dangers of negative thinking, but that doesn’t mean blindly embracing positivity. It’s crucial that we understand and resolve problems – not run from them or pretend all is always sunshine and light.


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