Does Positive Thinking Work?

If you are suffering from low self-esteem, can you get yourself out of the doldrums by simply thinking positive thoughts? In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” gave a definite “Yes” to that question. Peale said you do not need to be defeated by anything. You can achieve peace of mind, health, and energy by, among other things, picturing and thinking about yourself succeeding, minimizing obstacles when you think about a challenge, thinking positive thoughts to inhibit negative thoughts, and regularly reminding yourself of the respect you hold for yourself. Similar ideas have been presented recently by Rhonda Byrnes, author of “The Greatest Secret.” Read her books and you will come to see how you can have, be, or do anything you want; you will discover who you really are and the self-actualization that life can give you.

Wow! Think your way to happiness, contentment, serenity, and stability. Ah, but if it were only that simple. Think about it. If positive thinking had that kind of power, all of us would be able to raise our self-esteem to comfortably high and healthy levels just by thinking positive thoughts; we could erase a lot of mental illness, not to mention the need for psychoactive drugs. Realistically, though, dealing with pathological or even everyday emotional conditions is much more complicated than merely imagining how we want to be, and getting what we want.

“But wait,” you protest, “surely positive thinking has psychological benefits.” Indeed, it does. Research has revealed that people high in self-esteem who engage in repetitive practice in making self-affirming and positive self-statements do show temporary increases in self-esteem. Optimistic thinking has also been shown to strengthen the immune system, making one less susceptible to colds. There is, however, no evidence that such an outlook can increase longevity or cure one from an already-contracted disease. There is also no evidence we can permanently change our self-esteem level by simply thinking positively. Furthermore, positive thinking has been shown to lower self-esteem in those already low in self-regard. Apparently, they don’t “buy into” the positive self-statements, saying, “Nope, sorry. Those positive thoughts are not who I am.” In short, the positive effects of optimistic thinking are quite limited.

So where does that leave us? Simple. Forget the focus on thoughts; after all, they only exist in your head; in a sense, they are not real, unless you translate the thoughts into actions.

You must focus on optimistic actions, not thoughts, because without accompanying actions, thoughts remain fantasy. Before you decide your level of insecurity about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your thoughts. Thoughts are cheap; actions reveal your essence and show you the path to better coping with stress.

Then there is the “happiness” card. People generally buy into the power of positive thinking because they want to achieve happiness. Unfortunately, attaining happiness is a false goal. It is not something you find, but something that emerges from actions you perform. Ironically, even those actions do not bring you happiness; they bring you feelings of contentment, satisfaction, and an appreciation of something worthwhile that you accomplished. Along those same lines, some people base their perception of reality on how “happy” they are. Please remember that effective coping does not require that you achieve “happiness.” Good coping means developing a realistic and optimistic lifestyle – not a momentary state of being, but a repetitive pattern of actions that empower you, and give you a sense of autonomy, personal control, and fulfillment.

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