Is positive thinking effective for increasing wellness and inner peace? I mean, really. It’s so corny. So Pollyanna. And yet, we spiritual people swear by it. Non-spiritual people, too. We give it credit for so many of our life achievements.
I love this question. Really, really love it, partly because the answer isn’t straightforward. So the other week when I ran across an interview with Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Wayne Dyer in which it was asked, my ears perked up.
Strangely, positivity is a very polarizing subject. You have the extreme believers and the extreme haters. The believers think it’s the reason for everything good that ever happens (I’m looking at you, Rhonda Byrne). The haters view these people as not only misled, but downright ridiculous. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, has become well known for books like Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Not the book idea I’d want to commit to for several years of my working life.
But there are a few less skeptical, more balanced approaches to the anti-positivity argument as well. And I was pleased that in the Dyer-Tolle interview, both shared interesting, balanced perspectives. They agreed that if a person really wants to achieve greater inner peace, positivity isn’t the goal, or even necessarily a great starting point. Instead, they say, work on being true to yourself, being honest–even if there’s some difficult emotions that come up.
Then Dyer mentioned Anita Moorjani, who wrote a book (Dying to Be Me) about her near death experience and what she learned from it. In it, she says that it’s not about positive thinking. It’s not about manufacturing good feelings where there are none. It’s not about mantras, and the law of attraction, and The Secret, and Norman Vincent Peale.
Positive thinking is a mere substitute for the real thing. Real enlightenment. Real joy. Real love.
It’ll only get you part of the way.
Pema Chodron would likely agree. Her (awesome) books are full of insights about the importance of honesty and authenticity–even suffering. She has a ton–really, just a ton–of amazing quotes on this topic. Here’s one, from When Things Fall Apart: “To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.”
So, okay. Maybe positive thinking isn’t all it’s touted to be. But, well–what is, right? Any idea that has entered the popular consciousness with as much force and repetition (not to mention anecdotal and even scientific evidence, a la the placebo effect) suffers from oversimplification syndrome. Maybe positivity isn’t the cure-all, or even one of the truly great spiritual practices out there. That doesn’t mean I’m giving it up anytime soon.
Briefly, here’s my take: As many of you know, I’ve experienced chronic dysthemia (low-level depression) for most of my life. Spirituality and prayer have always been a source of help for me, as have many other practices. But the very first true breakthrough I ever experienced regarding my depression resulted from reading a book on changing one’s thoughts. It was called Telling Yourself the Truth: Find Your Way Out of Depression, Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Other Common Problems by Applying the Principles of Misbelief Therapy, and I still recommend it to this day (though there are other, similar books on the subject I prefer now). The basic message: your negative thoughts are responsible for your negative feelings. To change the feeling, change the thought. Oh, and by the way, those negative thoughts aren’t true, anyway–not nearly as true as the more objective–and yes, more positive–alternative perspectives.
The message was simple, and in some ways quite obvious, and yet, as a Christian who had always relied on prayer alone for healing, it was radical to me. When I began “taking my thoughts captive,” as the Bible teaches, I was finally able to cap off some of the depression.
These days, I use positive thinking as a tool every day of my life, both in a knee-jerk sort of way and as a dedicated journaling practice. Don’t get me wrong–I’d love to be more like Eckhart Tolle, who is able to “just be.” And Moorjani, who tells us that rather than try to drum up better-feeling thoughts, we should simply live a life that celebrates who we really, authentically are–whatever that may be.
I’m working on it.