Positive Thinking

There are two types of positive thinking.  You can be optimistic about what you think, or you can be positive in how you think.  One is useful and the other is dangerous.  Unfortunately, the difference between the two is often subtle, and I rarely see anyone addressing this issue directly.

Optimism – Dangerous Positive Thinking

Optimism is believing things will turn out well, even when the evidence argues the opposite.  The problem with this kind of positive thinking is that it moves you away from the truth.  Whenever you move away from the truth of your situation, you’ll make poor decisions and get lousy results.

Consider the following cases of dangerous optimism:

  • Continuing to smoke, because you don’t believe you’ll get lung cancer.
  • Staying in a broken relationship because you believe it will magically improve.
  • Working a dead-end job because you’re betting on an unlikely promotion.
  • Not saving for your retirement because you believe you’ll win the lottery.

It’s obvious that, in these cases, believing good things will happen is going to keep you from making improvements in your life.  Unfounded optimism is dangerous.

Despite these examples, many people (and many authors) have argued that there are benefits to deceive yourself into believing unlikely, good things will happen.  This has created a lot of the confusion towards positive thinking and, in my opinion, much of the cynicism towards the self-help movement.

Often stated examples are:

  • Believing in yourself when no one else does, can push you to accomplish big things.
  • Optimism can help you stay committed to a goal when there is no external reinforcement.
  • Faith in your actions can help you rebound from discouraging failures.

In these cases, I’ll agree, optimism can be helpful.  The problem is that it’s impossible to neatly separate the cases of genuinely helpful optimism from dangerous optimism.  A lie is a lie, no matter how you spin it.

A better perspective to adopt is one that stays true to your situation, but also gives you the motivation you need to work hard.  Here are a few perspectives to consider that are honest, but also encourage you to keep going:

  • It’s better to try and fail, then not to try.  Helen Keller has a great quote that frames the decision we all face perfectly, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”
  • We learn from failures, not from success.  Continuing after a failure doesn’t require optimism, because every error builds on your knowledge.  Each mistake brings you closer to success.
  • The purpose of having goals is motivated action.  Setting goals isn’t about achievement, it’s about getting you to feel inspired and take action.  Even if success isn’t forthcoming, you can still work, knowing your goal has served it’s purpose.

These are just a few perspectives, but there are countless others.  The point is that you shouldn’t need to lie to yourself in order to stay motivated.  Realistically viewing the situation should push you to make the best decisions.  The reason this happens is when you cultivate the genuinely good form of positive thinking.

Positive Attitude – The Useful Positive Thinking

Optimism is thinking positive about the things that will happen.  A positive attitude, on the other hand, is about being positive in the way you think about things.  Unlike optimism, a positive attitude doesn’t invite falsehoods.  It doesn’t ask that you surrender your reasoning abilities in order to make decisions.  Because a positive attitude aligns with the truth of your reality, you can be as positive as you like without the dangers of overconfidence or arrogance.

In order to explain the difference between attitude and optimism, I’ll use an example.  Let’s say you’re unhealthy.  Although this may seem like a cold fact, there are really many ways you can represent this to yourself internally:

  1. I’m going to die.
  2. I’m an unhealthy person.
  3. I’ve got a problem with diet and exercise.
  4. I’ve got some habits that need to change.
  5. I have a challenge and an opportunity to increase the quality of my life.

All of these are true.  You can’t look at any one of those statements and disagree with it if you’re actually out of shape.  However, you’re brain can’t think with all of those patterns simultaneously.  You can only think one perspective at a time.  A positive attitude is about cultivating the perspectives that are the most useful for generating change.

Optimism would involve deceiving yourself about the results.  You would claim that you weren’t going to suffer because of your poor health or that you weren’t really unhealthy.  You might also believe that changing your health would be easy (and quickly give up when it gets too hard).  A positive attitude doesn’t make that error.

How to Cultivate a Positive Attitude Without Lying to Yourself

Getting a positive attitude is all about earning new perspectives.  The more perspectives you have at your disposal, the more choices you have to represent a situation.  One reason I read so many books is to cultivate additional perspectives.  Sometimes the perspective isn’t useful, in which case I’ll drop it.  Other times, the perspective helps me see through one of my own lousy thinking patterns.

A positive attitude is like having a lot of tools in your garage.  When a pipe bursts or a screw comes loose, you have many different tools to fix it.  It isn’t about lying to yourself that the pipe isn’t leaking, it’s about having more than just a hammer and a nail to fix everything.

Find Useful Patterns

If you don’t have a positive attitude, there are two possible causes:

  1.     You don’t have enough tools.
  2.     You’re too familiar with one ineffective set of tools.

In the first case, you need to get out and find more tools.  If all you have is a hammer, look around for screwdrivers, drill bits and wrenches.  You can do this by reading a larger variety of books by different authors.  Joining new organization also injects new patterns of thinking, as does meeting new people and cultures.

If the second case is the problem, you have to force yourself to think from a different tool set.  You might see every problem as being unsolvable by you except by the direct intervention of luck or a higher power.  This may be helpful in some cases, but unless you train yourself to think with another set of tools (some that are more independent), you’ll be stuck in a lot of situations.

The worth of a set of tools is defined by it’s usefulness.  Your attitude should always be accurate to the evidence available.  Any tool, even if temporarily helpful, that causes you to lie to yourself is ultimately dangerous.  However, even for accurate tools, there is still a huge range in the level of usefulness for each.

A perspective is useful if it:

  1.     gives you more power
  2.     focuses you on the actionable part of the problem
  3.     makes you enthusiastic

Helen Keller’s quote that I used earlier in the article is a great example.  By saying life is either a daring adventure or nothing, she contrasts this useful attitude to the more common, defeatist perspective on life.

Positive thinking isn’t about what you think, it’s how you think.  If you’re optimistic with your results, you’ll ultimately head away from reality and towards self-deception.  If you’re positive with you’re attitude, you make realistic decisions that inspire you to move forward.

  • Margaret

    I found your blog through Cal Newport’s website and I really like it! You do have lots of great things to say.

    And I really agree with pretty much everything you said. It applies to pretty much everything in life, to… grades, relationships, etc.. The only time that I do bad on exams is when I am overly optimistic about my ability to do well (so I don’t prepare as much as I should), despite evidence that says the contrary.

    Now that I think about it, I always know when something bad is about to happen, but convince myself otherwise to avoid dealing with it!

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Margaret,

    Cal’s site has great, we’ve collaborated a couple times.


  • Thomas

    Generalizing from your examples, it looks like this: “Optimism about action is good. Optimism about inaction is bad.” I wonder if that is true in general.

  • jonathanfigaro

    “We become what we think about” is what come to my minds when i think about positive thinking. I mean we have the ability to think ” no other creature on the planet can do so” So if we we can all think , why no thinking in term of the best possible outcome.

    With out action positive thinking is a waste of energy and time. In order to be successful in all you avenue of passion. You must think and act.

  • karim

    Your blog is very interesting and good post on positive thinking.

    karim – Positive thinking

  • J.Jo

    This is a very engrossing article indeed. To me positive thinking is in truth about evolving a ‘can do’ mental attitude and moving out from negativeness and dilatoriness. This is easier said than done for lots of people and that is why it is nice to be capable to learn expert advice around. What you have composed in your article genuinely adds up. Thank You, I will be checking back to keep up with upcoming articles.

  • rossccini

    Once again your correct scott. I do believe that positive thinking is the way to go and you have made a subtle matter very clear are you a professor?. I also think that optimism can be rewarding on numerous grounds. To me the difference between optimism and positive thinking is that with optimism you have to apply discretion, positive thinking stands on it’s own.

  • Joe Dodds

    I disagree.

    Optimism is an innate ability to look for the bright side. I don’t necessarily think that all optimistic’s are blind optimistic’s, and the research into the field of optimism has shown time and time again that it helps people.

    Positive thinking is a conceived idea that you can think your way out of a problem. If you are not optimistic, but you pretend to yourself that you are, then it’s going to create even more self doubt when things continue to go wrong.

    I believe your article may be misusing the term optimism, and comparing that to a motivated attitude. Rather than comparing optimism itself with positive thinking. One has been deemed helpful, the other detrimental in health and well being.

    In a general sense, being positively motivated to carry out an action to better yourself is a good thing. When it comes to events that you cannot change however, then optimism is the last straw between healthy coping and potential mental health issues.

  • not going to put my name

    this has just confirmed a recent decision I made to continue a GCSE I’m failing in because if I work hard I may scrape a pass. but I’m better with one D with around 11 A’s than giving up on that one flaw. » It’s better to try and fail, then not to try.