The Difference Between Positive Thinking and Positive Psychology

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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.Ich liebe dich...

Photo Credit: Thai Jasmine (…Smile..) via Compfight

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.

Yes, We Can (44th/52)
Photo Credit: Alexandre Normand via Compfight

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

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Now available:  New e-book on The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.

40 Responses to The Difference Between Positive Thinking and Positive Psychology

  1. Mika Keener September 4, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    Hi Jeremy!
    This is a great article that will be very helpful for positive psychology practitioners in distinguishing their field from positive thinking. Thanks for reminding us of the negative denominator in the positivity ratio, and the role of mindfulness. Also wanted to add that Tony Robbins is actually not a proponent of positive thinking, and many times uses negative emotion to get people to make change.
    Thanks for this great article. Look forward to reading more!
    Mika Keener, MAPP

  2. Lisa Sansom September 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    Great article and very clear distinctions. Certainly, positive psychology should be critically viewed and reviewed (just as with any other science), but at least let’s be sure that it’s “positive psychology” that we’re assessing, and not some other thing! Love your conclusion – so beautifully stated!

  3. Oz September 5, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    jeremy – this such guff – can you tell me exactly what pp has proven. is 3:1 a fact or theory that has been hyped

    at its root pp is pisitive thinking because its mostly spin

  4. Jeremy McCarthy September 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Positive psychology, like any science, doesn’t prove anything. Researchers create hypotheses and then they test those hypotheses. You can read about the researchers’ work on the positivity ratio here: I’m sorry you still don’t understand the difference between positive psychology and positive thinking.

  5. Oz September 5, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    jeremy – i am well aware of this research. isnt spinning research the epitamy of positive thinking – ie only looking at the positive outcomes without the nuance.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy September 5, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    I’m not sure if I understand you but this is the same point I am trying to make. Positive thinking cherry picks the research and only tells half the story. If you think the researchers are doing that as well maybe you can explain the nuance that you feel they have missed in their work.

  7. Oz September 6, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    and positive psychologists do the same thing – think ratios – there are other studies showing homogenity might also be important – or that many gurus studies are only conducted on student cohorts (think curiosity for example)

    try this simple test – what has been proven – as opposed to what you want to be proven ie your positive thinking on pp

  8. Jeremy McCarthy September 6, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    Your point about studies showing homogenity in emotions supports my point that positive psychology is about understanding this balance whereas positive thinking exclusively looks at the positive. As I mentioned before, I don’t think positive psychology “proves” anything. But it does use the scientific method to gather evidence for its theories. This is how science works. It’s fair to criticize our scientific process (abundance of studies on university cohorts, failure to publish null findings, etc.) but this is hardly unique to positive psychology and not a good reason to cease inquiring. If you are making a call for stronger and better research, then I’m on board. But the straw man fallacy of attacking positive psychology as if it is the same thing as positive thinking doesn’t really get us anywhere.

  9. Oz September 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Jeremy – but at its heart pp is probably no better than positive thinking see

    My hunch is the reporting bias in pp would be even worse than psychology.

    I think it’s bizarre for pp to claim the moral high ground given the fundamental weaknesses of psychological research – it is very very shaky ground.

    Interestingly most adherents to the cult of pp have this positive bias as well – like most people they report what aligns with their beliefs.

  10. Oz September 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Jeremy – as an aside did you know that 10 of the 11 studies conducted by a guru on curiosity are uni student cohorts. The One that wasn’t was a high school cohort. The use of student cohorts in psychology is considered one of its dirty secrets.

    When you give seminars do you mention the limitations of the research – I do. If not then you are just reinforcing pp as positive thinking

  11. Jan Stanley September 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    “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.” Love this distinction, Jeremy, and the others you bring forward. Great clarity, as always! Jan

  12. oz September 6, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    Jeremy – one lsat question – if you don’t mention the limitations of research then ask yourself why not? When I ask this question of other people they state that it will undermine the efficacy of the technique – that sounds like trying to maximise positive thinking (placebo etc) to me

  13. Lisa Sansom September 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    The Nature article that you posted, Oz, does indicate that other sciences are also guilty of the same prediction biases, which in some ways is surprising and some ways is not. We’d hope that well-trained researchers (regardless of discipline) who are deeply involved in their field would have a good sense as to the next hypothesis and be able to predict it accurately with some degree of certainty. My husband, for example, who has been studying and researching physics intensively for about 25 yrs. If he couldn’t figure out the most likely outcome of a physics experiment, even if it had never been done before, I think people would wonder about his expertise and knowledge of his field.

    Admittedly, the Nature article does also say that psychological sciences are the worst culprit, and that’s probably because it’s the easiest one to “fake” (e.g. Marc Hauser). However, this doesn’t make positive psychology any worse than any other field of psychology. Hauser was working in evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, according to his Wikipedia page. I wouldn’t call that a field of positive psychology, and yet he seems to have faked, or allowed fakery, for quite a while.

    Similarly, we have witnessed the spectacular flaming of Jonah Lehrer’s writing career due to inventiveness and writing things that one simply *wants* to be true, so we know this concern isn’t limited to the sciences either.

    So yes, let’s hold science and all of humankind up to a higher standard. To echo what Jeremy said earlier, “If you are making a call for stronger and better research, then I’m on board.” I’m on board with that too.

    Is that the call that you are making?

    (And any psychological research that I’ve read, the authors very clearly state the limitations of their research and suggest avenues for future research, which often calls for the replication of the work, especially in different populations – no one is trying to hide this limitation. And it’s also how scientific research progresses – one step at a time… And yes, future studies do occasionally disprove or nuance earlier ones – that’s good! It means science is working and creating more clarity and understanding.)

  14. Jeremy McCarthy September 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Oz, I think these are relevant criticisms of psychology and the social sciences although they are not unique to positive psychology. Here’s another paper on the subject of the limitations of psych research and how WEIRD the subjects are (I assume you are familiar with this but posting it for my readers: This still doesn’t do anything in my mind to lessen the clear distinction between positive thinking and positive psychology which was the subject of my article. As far as whether I reveal limitations when I am speaking, it depends on what I am speaking about, who my audience is and how much time I have. I would sum up my position (and the way I present it in my talks) as follows: 1. ALL science reports (not just positive psychology) should be viewed skeptically and not taken as “proof” or “fact”. Until a study has been replicated it is not much more than a hunch (to use your word) with some supporting evidence. But 2. If a researcher has spent several years studying a topic and developing hypotheses and testing those hypotheses (even if only on college students) I’m interested in learning from their work/thinking/findings and maybe even applying them or testing them out in my own life to see if they bring benefit, especially if there is low cost or risk to doing so.)

  15. Oz September 7, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    Agreed – so I guess in all future articles you will talk about limitations.

    I could go on to question the difference between pp and a placebo (positive thinking) but that would open up another can of worms

  16. Oz September 7, 2012 at 1:14 am #

    Jeremy – thanx for the link. I havent seen this article before – its a beauty and just reinforces my argument. My wife has her hairdresser hypothesis – is the benefit any better than the discussion you have with your hairdresser – at least with a hairdresser you have a positive outcome.

  17. Jeremy McCarthy September 7, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    Hi Oz, Actually I will continue to discuss limitations of research when and how I think makes sense based on the context. I will, however, continue to include links to my sources so readers can assess them for themselves and I do expect readers to have some discernment towards the things they read on the internet. I don’t agree with mindlessly and thoughtlessly promoting positive psychology (just as I don’t think it makes sense to mindlessly and thoughtlessly tear it down.) I’m more interested in what I can learn from it (and I have learned a lot.) As for your wife’s hairdresser, it sounds like she has a good one. In a small way, the point of positive psychology is that not all hairdressers are skilled at making their clients feel good, but maybe through scientific inquiry, we could better understand what makes one hairdresser good at increasing wellbeing and another not so much.

  18. Oz September 7, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Jeremy – thats my perspective on pp now. I use to be a science tragic but pp at best can provide us with ideas to explore. BUT the important is these ideas are no better/worse than the ideas provided by Anthony Robbins etc – to claim so is the ultimate exercise in cynicism.

    Unfortunately given the crappy pp research it can only generate ideas – not filter them.

    So my tip – do a course in NLP – you will learn a heap more.

    By the way my wife is suggesting that the hairdresser should be a control as perhaps could be a simple massage

  19. Caroline Miller September 7, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    The relentless negativity posted by “Oz” on every forum, in every discussion, and in response any subject remotely related to Positive Psychology, year after year after year after year, is wearing out our brains and destroying valuable brain cells. Check out this article to find out why the eyes glaze over when you’ve heard one diatribe too many:

  20. Oz September 7, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

    Caroline – perhaps you it might be useful to consider the validity of the articles you quote. Does it really strip away brain cells…. And what exactly is the role of the hippocampus?

    Actually i have a very grounded perspective on pp – I know its strengths and weaknesses.

    Do you?

    Perhaps have a look at the links that Jeremy and I provided in this discussion. You might then have a more realistic perspective?

  21. Oz September 7, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Caroline – I just read the comments – people were asking for the science as well. Please let me know when she provides it – my hunch – it won’t appear. You do yourself and pp no favours by quoting guff like this

  22. Sean September 8, 2012 at 12:36 am #

    Oz, Do you really believe there are not differences btw PP and positive thinking? Doesn’t at least some of the research in PP look at positive emotions? Here is an article I came across talking about the positive thinking is not the same as positive emotion:

    Of course the article is “guff”, written for a general audience and does not really point to any credible evidence for the author’s explanation to the lawyer. But, in the end, I kinda agree the there is a difference.

  23. Caroline Adams Miller September 8, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Oh, Wayne. I know I’m hopelessly stupid, and an uncritical thinker, and that everything a MAPP grad puts forward in any way shape or form will meet with your derision and contempt, but I’ll end my comments by saying that
    1. The article about complaining was a humorous attempt to get you to take a look at how your complaining about Positive Psychology all over the web, wherever you look, regardless of the forum, has become your primary legacy and it may or may not be how you want to be remembered or thought of. It’s tough to be a negative one-note Johnny and still get respect from people you hope will take you seriously. Is there a book you’ve written that Jeremy can review here? It would be nice to see all of your thoughts, interpretations, and your brand-new thinking about a specific subject out for everyone to consider. Try it!
    2. I’m pretty well-known for looking hard at research, and that’s why my book, “Creating Your Best Life,” has gotten a lot of acclaim from scholars in a variety of fields. The book is full of findings from many different areas of psychology and other realms (read it! You might learn from me!), and the research you suggest I actually read here is already in there, so no need to kindly point this dummy in the direction of fairly well-known research. Again, I know I’m stupid, doltish, uncritical and a syncophant of anything put forward by Marty Seligman but … The world will be a better place if we all listen to Wayne and his interpretation of research and how others write about it! We’ve found the answer!

  24. Oz September 8, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Sean – I am saying that given the quality f research you really can’t say pp is any better than positive thinking. As I said earlier I was a science tragic – that as changed that I have had a close look at the Science. This means that I am currently rewriting my website to be more reflective of what the science really says

  25. Oz September 8, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Caroline – sorry the humour was way to subtle for me. I prefer to the source when I read articles. I find books tend to have a biased perspective – but I’m sure yours would be different.

  26. Oz September 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Caroline – how about a free copy of your book? I’m paticularly interested in self reg – does your book cover it?

  27. Caroline Miller September 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    You can email the publisher and ask for a review copy. The most critical chapter is about self regulation and I have said that in dozens of interviews and I made it the first chapter concerning how to proceed with goals. You can also get it through the Barnes and Noble app for the Nook.

  28. Oz September 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    caroline – im intrigued how the research i was quoting (2011)is included in your book (published 2009)? you are fast becoming the poster girl for my point

  29. Caroline Miller September 8, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Happy to take the honor of your poster child. And of course nothing published after 2008 would have made my 2009 pub date, but much of what you encouraged me to read as far as research here IS in my book, along with dozens and dozens of other studies. In fact, just checking all of the footnotes took me days prior to publication, and I know you’ll love it, Wayne, if you are open-minded around learning from silly old me. And I have another book coming out later this year, and look forward to reading yours when you have a chance to synthesize your thoughts and come up with something we can intelligently critique. Sorry this has gotten to that familiar personal place, Jeremy, but you are a great writer with terrific thoughts and I’ll continue to read your stuff (guff?) while staying away from the commentary.

  30. Oz September 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Caroline you’re right – enjoy!!

    Enough of this conversation

    Pp is too much of any easy target

    Off to a yoga class

  31. Jaime Booth Cundy September 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    Great Article Jeremy!

    I always love reading your perspective, it really allows me time to stop and think. I truly appreciate that, so thank you.

    I would like to suggest a new positive psychology intervention however…specifically for online…

    “Don’t feed the Trolls”

    We have all faced them in our online lives, those that love to ‘stir the pot’, they seem to know what will get us all worked up, and they love to push our buttons. While our adrenaline starts to course through our veins and we pull our hair out…the troll sits back and relaxes…usually as we scream out in frustration they sit back and giggle.

    The thing about the troll is that they are generally clever, and do come from some source of knowledge, they make some sense. But their goal is not to change how we think about something, they are there simply to ‘get a rise’ out of us, and they are extremely adept at it.

    Dealing with trolls is tricky, but the easiest way to avoid the troll…is to starve them of what they want…which is the argument.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t engage with them, in fact they often will initially come from a valid point, one that deserves some consideration, but again they aren’t here to educate us…they want an adrenaline rush of getting us all worked up. But how do we extract the valid point from the troll? Well just like the three billy goats gruff we must solve their riddle.

    1) Read the comment a few times, try reading it in someone else’s voice, I find that this will change where I put my emphasis’ and can change the meaning of the comment. (James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman are excellent voices to use…)

    2) Determine if they have a valid argument, or if they are simply trying to start a fight

    3) If they have a valid point, acknowledge and address it. If they respond back aggressively or with personal slags… move on…don’t feed the troll. If they have a valid counter argument..continue to engage…congratulations you have tamed the troll.

    At any point if you find yourself getting all riled up….your chest gets tight and you have a sudden urge to play ‘Rage Against the Machine’….you may be feeding the troll….it is that negative energy that they thrive on…and that makes you turn into the very thing you are fighting….a troll.

    Essentially this is the difference between positive thinking and positive psychology, at least as I understand it; positive thinking tells me that if I try hard enough….if I really BELIEVE…the troll will either go away or they will eventually come around to my train of thought, positive psychology shows us that what the troll does or does not do doesn’t matter, how we react to them….does.

  32. Oz September 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Jaime – I guess you are implying I’m a troll primarily because I dare criticise pp. sounds just a little cultish to me.

    I’m actually interested in how you keep bloggers accountable without challenging flawed thinking – particularly when the blog claims to be the science of wellbeing.

    Anyhow back into my cave

  33. Oz September 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    oops – meant psychology of wellbeing

    the light is bad in the cave

  34. Jeremy McCarthy September 10, 2012 at 9:35 am #


    I don’t mind critiques on my blog articles at all. I enjoy the discussion and I have learned a lot from critics of positive psychology. I only prefer that they be respectful and have some sort of substantiation to them. I think the reactions you see here to your presence on the web has much to do with the fact that your comments rarely transcend the “pp is guff” level. I actually appreciate that you have taken some time here in these comments to explain your position. That being said, it is difficult for me to take your critiques seriously for 2 reasons:

    1. You continue to confound positive thinking and positive psychology. You seem to think positive psychology is a specific intervention or set of interventions that is equal to or should be measured against positive thinking. In fact, positive psychology is a field of study. As in any field of science, some of the research is stronger than others, and as in any young field of science, some of the research has not yet been replicated (you can’t have replicated research unless you start with unreplicated research.) Some of the constructs overlap with optimism and positive thinking, and some of the constructs have absolutely nothing to do with positive thinking. The reason you say “pp is an easy target” is because you have constructed your straw man version of it to make it so. The critics of pp that I enjoy following are those that show a deep understanding of positive psychology and challenge the science to be better in some way. They usually stand for something (better science, a more integrated psychology, a more cautious approach to application, etc.) After a few years of seeing your “pp is guff” comments, I still have no idea what you stand for.

    2. You are the first person to jump on anyone who gloms on to positive psychology without understanding the science, and I can agree with you that a shallow unquestioning acceptance of the science is ripe to be criticized. But the irony of your position is that you see no problem with mindlessly criticizing any work that falls under the heading of pp without bothering to read it or understand it. I tend to think that a mindless rejection of science (or rejection of an entire field based on certain pieces of research that don’t pass your muster) is just as bad as a mindless acceptance of it. Your message doesn’t seem to be to make the science stronger but rather that all research should cease and we should all just trust your “hunches.”

    Hopefully I’m wrong about this but either way, I’ve enjoyed the debate and I do appreciate that you took the time to go a little deeper into this issue.

  35. Oz September 10, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    My hunches – mostly placebo (positive thinking) – nothing wrong with that. But then the question becomes how to hook into placebo

  36. Bill LaJoie September 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

    Obama – Positive Thinking. Romney – Positive Psychology.

  37. Oz September 19, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    The troll here again – your question what do I stand for is interesting. I actually don’t stand for anything – it narrows your view of the world and biases your thinking.

    Out of interest what do you stand for?


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