Positive thinking promises great things. If we just improve our attitude, we’ll be happier, healthier, and more successful.
There’s a lot to that promise. Positive thinking is a powerful tool. But it frightens me to hear people speak of positive thinking as a magical bullet which can overcome anything and everything. If we put too much faith in positive thinking, we create unrealistic expectations. And then, when positive thinking doesn’t fix the problem, we blame the person who’s suffering because she mustn’t have tried hard enough to adjust her attitude.
In this way, too much faith in the power of positive thinking prevents us from treating ourselves and others with kindness and compassion. It feeds into the perfectionism that many of us struggle with by providing yet another way in which we aren’t good enough. And so, when our attempts to fix our attitude fail, we beat ourselves up, stress ourselves out, and make ourselves miserable. We shouldn’t be unhappy; we should have a better attitude.
I am especially worried about how an exaggerated faith in positive thinking colors our approach to problems like mental illness which don’t have an obvious physical cause. We generally understand that pneumonia requires antibiotics, but too many of us still think of depression and other mental illness as something that can be cured with more effort and a better attitude. We offer the depressed person well-meaning advice, telling her to be positive, to count her blessings, and to do yoga to feel better. Some of my students with depression internalize this optimistic advice and then apologize for being depressed. They explain that they are working really hard at improving their attitude, and say they know they have a good life and shouldn’t be depressed. They look surprised and relieved when I say that I don’t think depression can be fixed with a better attitude.
Why is it so tempting to exaggerate the power of positive thinking? I think it is because it lets us think we are in control. If attitude is everything, then we can gain some control of even the terrifying aspects of our lives. Instead of recognizing that we can’t control everything, we figure that if we think positively enough, we can avoid the bad stuff — or at least make it hurt less. Happiness is up to us and suffering can be avoided; all we need to do is to work hard to improve our attitude.
Our attitude matters. But we need to temper our belief in the power of attitude with compassion and realism. Attitude can’t control everything and we can’t always control our attitude. Recognizing these limits will make it easier to be compassionate towards others as well as towards ourselves. Paradoxically, it will probably also make us happier.
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