Marchbooks' Blog

October 25, 2009

Can Positive Thought Be Harmful To Your Health?

I just read a curious article on The Perils of Positive Thought, If you are like me, you are going huh? and scratching your head right about now. Initially, I thought the title was just a hook or there must be some twist in the article, but it actually does argue that a positive attitude is harmful, and is even guilty of ‘undermining America’.

I would never argue that an opinion that is different from my own lacks credence just because I disagree. Obviously, the author of Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich, feels passionately about this issue, but I still feel compelled to point out some problems with her argument. The first principle that I take exception with is that ‘the opposite of positive is realist’. It must have happened when I wasn’t looking, but when did optimism and realism become mutually exclusive? Optimism vs Pessimism – at least that is how I learned it.

Having a positive attitude does not mean walking around like Polly Anna with blinders on. You can see the reality of a situation without giving in to despair about it. Trying to maintain a positive attitude (and I do say trying, because no one is successful at it all of the time) does not mean ignoring the negatives going on around you, turning a blind eye to them and just trying to wish them away with your positivity. To the contrary, I think that a positive attitude can give you more strength to deal with the negatives in your life because you can visualize a better day. For instance, if we truly believed that the American economy had no chance of rebounding from its current downturn, what incentive would most of us have to get up and go to work every morning?

The fact that the human condition is only a temporary one is what gives us the strength to see past negative trends and look forward to a better future. If we, as a people, truly believed that we were doomed and had no cause for anything but despair, how could we even propagate the race? Could we, with such a negative outlook, bring new lives into the world, knowing that our children would also be doomed? It is hope and optimism that keeps us getting out of bed every morning.

The author argues that ‘being consistently upbeat and optimistic has two downsides.  By refusing to look at potential negative consequences, we can delude ourselves about the harmfulness of our actions,’ and that it is a  potentially cruel burden to impose on others. I reiterate that having a positive outlook does not mean ignoring potentially negative consequences. As for imposing a cruel burden on others to be positive, I find that  a bit simplistic. She cites her own battle with cancer. I don’t want to minimize her experience in any way, but the last time I checked, this was a free society and most adults have free will. If she found it oppressive to be surrounded by positivity, she should have expressed that to the people in her life and they should have honored her feelings.

I just don’t think it can be disputed that positivity, humor and laughter are healing forces. The mind/body connection is hard to deny. Furthermore, I don’t believe that trying to support a loved one with positivity equates to ‘infantilizing’ them. I think that most of us would be grateful to have people in our lives that cared enough to go to such lengths, especially when it means subverting their own fears and insecurities.

Without bringing religion into the argument, it is my personal belief that there is a universal power and consciousness. I have found that tuning into and reflecting positive thoughts to the universe can be a very constructive exercise. Is it the equivalent of rubbing the genie out of a magic lamp – of course not. I think of it more in line with some conventions applied by 12 step programs. ‘Act As If’ and ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ are two such precept. No one feels positive all of the time and no one is successful at keeping their goals in sight 24/7. However, keeping a vision in your head of where you want to be or even imagining yourself already being there is a powerful tool. For my author friends; imagining the completion of the final page of a novel, envisioning yourself holding your new book in your hand or being seated at your first book signing can help you to focus your thoughts and energy on your long-term goal.

Imagine if you will, a scenario where you could get everyone in the world to project one single thought out to the universe at the same time. Imagine that thought as being infinitely simple yet so complex that man has been unable to grasp it for all of his existence. Imagine everyone envisioning world peace at the very same moment and projecting that thought into the universe. How powerful do you think that would be? I don’t know about you, but I hope we will find out some day.

Until next time,
M.J. Claire


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