“The Power of Positive Thinking” was a landmark book by Norman Vincent Peale that came out in 1952. The idea of positive thinking grew in the 70s and has continued to be a popular new age prescription as a way of handling whatever happens to be ailing you.
The positive thinking movement continues to be strong today, culminating in recent years with the massive success of “The Secret” a book and movie which prescribes tapping into the “law of attraction” to attract good things in your life simply by thinking about them.
In the last decade, we have also seen the growth of positive psychology, a new branch of mental science which looks at the sunnier side of life (the study of human flourishing.) Positive psychology focuses on positive aspects of wellbeing including (but not limited to) positive emotions, happiness, hope, optimism and other constructs that relate to the idea of positive thinking.
To the uninformed, it would be easy to assume that positive psychology and positive thinking are strongly related. Some might even say, “Finally, science is proving what we have always thought to be true about positive thinking.” But this is not exactly the case. While positive thinking and positive psychology may be related, they are more like third cousins than twin brothers. And anyone who uses one or the other would be benefited by understanding the differences:
Philosophical orientation: Positive thinking begins with the assumption that positive thinking is good for you. This is often based on personal or anecdotal experience and then extrapolated to other aspects of life as a general prescription for a better life. Positive psychology begins with scientific inquiry. Positive psychology takes some of those assumptions about positive thinking and says, “let’s test them” to see where they hold true or don’t.
Positive thinking proponents, for example, argue that positivity is a powerful factor in our health and recovery from illness. Positive psychology has also found a strong link between happiness and health but seeks to understand the limitations of this relationship. Positive emotions seem to help more with prevention than with cure, and more with lifestyle illnesses than with genetic or environmental ones.
Positive emotions help build our social support network, encourage more positive lifestyle choices and buffer us from the negative health impacts of stress. But there are many serious health issues that positive emotions have little impact on. In fact, too much optimism could discourage people from seeking the treatment they need. Positive psychology is about using the scientific method to understand these nuances.
Positivity ratios: Positive thinking generally promotes the “more is better” approach to positivity. Some proponents of positive thinking would argue that if you don’t have the wealth, health or happiness you want out of life, it’s because you allowed some negativity to creep in. Only by shutting these thoughts out and focusing on the positive can you be successful.
Positive psychology on the other hand, is about understanding the purpose of positive emotions and understanding the different contexts when they may prove valuable. Positive psychology is also interested in negative emotions when they help us to flourish in our lives. Barbara Fredrickson, for example, a researcher who specializes in positive emotions, has found an ideal ratio of 3 positive emotions to every 1 negative emotion for human flourishing. 3:1, not 3:0.
Many researchers in positive psychology are studying the benefits of mindfulness, which means accepting both positive and negative emotions (in whatever ratio they happen to exist) and then acting consciously, while staying true to personal values and goals. These researchers argue for the importance of a meaningful life over a happy one.
Definitions of optimism: positive thinking eschews an optimistic outlook even when one isn’t warranted by the situation. Proponents will suggest “affirmations” for example, where people are told to say out loud things they wish to be true, even if they aren’t (e.g. “I make a million dollars a year!”) Positive psychology studies why optimism is sometimes beneficial (and sometimes not.) Psychology researchers don’t generally promote uninhibited optimism in all situations.
As Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism, says, “you don’t want the pilot who is de-icing the wings of your plane to be an optimist.” Another psychologist, Sandra Schneider, promotes “realistic optimism,” which is a matter of trying to realistically get to the truth of a matter, but where ambiguity lies in the meaning of a situation, favor the more positive assumption that will bring you greater mental wellbeing.
Another researcher Acacia Parks, says that the positive psychology brand of optimism is not about being positive all the time but about “entertaining the possibility that things could work out.” The benefit of optimism comes from being open to it, not from blindly following it even when it makes no sense to do so.
The reality is, much of what the positive thinking movement has proposed has shown some validity, and this is why people do get benefit out of reading The Secret or attending Tony Robbins’ seminars. Barbara Fredrickson has identified “upward spirals” to show how our positive emotions tend to reverberate off of those around us, sustaining and amplifying their benefits. And Martin Seligman has studied the benefits of favoring more optimistic thinking styles. But positive thinking is a one-note song that falls flat in certain situations, while positive psychology is about understanding the rich complexity of the positive side of life.
Coincidentally my friend and positive psychology MAPP colleague addressed the same issue on her blog this week. Check out her article on “What Isn’t Positive Psychology.”
References and recommended reading:
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. Crown Archetype.
Peale, N. V. (1996). The Power of Positive Thinking. Ballantine Books.
by Jeremy McCarthy
Now available: New e-book on The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.