Negative thinking isn’t good for you, but the same can be said of excessively positive thinking.
In particular, I’m talking about magical thinking – the belief that your thoughts or wishes can somehow influence the external world. This is patently untrue – no matter how many times you repeat the mantra “I am going to win the lottery this week”, you’re not going to win the lottery this week (well, there’s a tiny chance you will, but if you do, it won’t be because of some positive affirmation).
And yet, such magical thinking has long featured in certain self-help circles. Louise Hay, who sold tens of millions of books over the last five decades, used to argue that our thoughts have the power to create our reality, and that we can use this power to manifest anything we desire.
Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret, which has sold over 30 million copies since being published in 2006, popularised the so-called law of attraction and claimed that thoughts can change a person's life directly.
In 2023, the idea of “Lucky Girl Syndrome” was made popular by a TikTok influencer. Again, it focused on the notion that by repeating positive affirmations about your good luck – for example, repeating an affirmation like “I am so lucky, everything always works out for me” – you will manifest what you are seeking.
Now, positive thinking can obviously be beneficial, giving you the motivation to work towards towards your goals and to persevere when the going gets tough. However, magical thinking relies solely on wishful thinking, assuming that thoughts alone can bring about a desired outcome, without effort or action.
Life doesn’t work this way. Pretty thoughts are not enough – you have to do the work.
Magical thinking about manifesting your desired reality may be nonsense, but some people might say: it makes me feel hopeful, so where’s the harm?
I disagree, for multiple reasons.
Firstly, you waste your own time if you only devote your energies to visualising positive outcomes, as opposed to working towards them. To give but one example, there are multiple books about how to win the lottery by utilising the law of attraction. If you need or want more money – well, there are better ways to go about it.
Secondly, magical thinking can be psychologically toxic, because it will leave you feeling inadequate when things don’t work out.
Worse, when bad stuff happens, it will leave you feeling that it’s your fault. Louise Hay, who claimed to have cured herself of cancer, argued our thoughts cause various diseases like cancer (‘caused by deep resentment… the individual lives with a sense of self-pity’), AIDS (‘a strong belief in not being good enough. Denial of the self. Sexual guilt’), diabetes (‘A great need to control. Deep sorrow. No sweetness left’) and even bladder problems (‘Most bladder problems come from being “pissed off,” usually at a partner’).
In one interview with the New York Times, Hay was asked: if people’s thoughts are responsible for their conditions, might victims of genocide be to blame for their own deaths? ‘Yes, I think there’s a lot of karmic stuff that goes on, past lives’, she replied. What about the Holocaust, asked the interviewer; might the victims have been an unfortunate group of people who deserved what they got because of their behaviour in past lives? ‘Yes, it can work that way’, she replied, adding that this was ‘just my opinion’.
The message from The Secret is similarly toxic. ‘Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact’, writes Byrne. ‘Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything’. That includes ill health, as ‘illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts’. As for poverty and financial problems, the only reason someone doesn’t have enough money is ‘because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts'.
As psychologist Dr John Norcross once put it: ‘Cancer victims, sexual-assault victims, Holocaust victims – they’re responsible? The book is riddled with these destructive falsehoods’.
My next column will explore how magical thinking and over-valuing one’s thoughts is associated with multiple mental health problems, and offer practical advice on how to adapt a healthier, more grounded mindset.
(First published in Southern Star on 1/2/2024).