The power of positive thinking. “Just keep your chin up” “Just visualize your success”. We’ve all heard that before, and it usually comes at a time when the last thing we can see is the bright side. But is there any truth to it? Or are people just peddling some useless jargon, trying to find new ways of saying ‘It’s half full’.
Positive Thinking: Truth Or Lies?
One zen master, Osho, believes that the philosophy of positive thinking is one of the biggest lies out there, being bought by millions of Americans every day. He believes that positive thinking is actually doing more harm than good, making people think that if they ignore the bad, then there is no bad.
One way to think about it is to imagine playing peek-a-boo with a young child. Psychologists know that when toddlers cover their eyes and can’t see you, they actually think you’ve disappeared (which is what makes the game of peek-a-boo so hilarious for them). Osho believes that relying on positive thinking is like playing peek-a-boo with real conflicts that aren’t actually going away.
Osho goes on to say, “The philosophy of positive thinking means being untruthful; it means being dishonest. It means seeing a certain thing and yet denying what you have seen; it means deceiving yourself and others.”
One of Osho’s key examples of this school of thought is Dale Carnegie, author of the very popular book How to Win Friends and Influence People, that has sold almost as many copies as the Christian Bible. Osho believes that Carnegie is responsible for this idea to ignore the negative, as if it weren’t there.
Osho also blames Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, for the birth of this idea that if we think about something hard enough, it will come to be. He used the example of the day Hill met Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company.
Osho explains that when Hill first wrote his book, he used to stand in bookstores and try to persuade people to buy his book. One day, Henry Ford walked into the bookstore he was in, and hill jumped at the opportunity to sell him his book. Ford had one question for him:
“Have you come in your own car or on the bus?”
Hill naturally replied that he had ridden the bus, to which Ford said,
“Look outside. That is my private car, and I am Henry Ford. You are befooling others; you don’t have even a private car and you write a book called Think and Grow Rich! And I have grown rich without thinking, so I don’t want to bother with it. You think and grow rich! – and when you grow rich then you come to me. That will be the proof. The book is not the proof.”
But what about the power of positive thinking when it comes to healing physically? Is there any truth to idea that you can heal your body with the power of your mind?
Positive Thinking and You
This idea that you can be happy if you choose to be has gained huge popularity and has even been integrated into America’s military in the way they treat trauma from combat, classrooms, and workplaces to improve coping skills, performance, and mental health .
But it could actually be doing more harm than good, as it started to become used to shame people with depression, anxiety, or the odd negative feelings. Two studies printed in Motivation and Emotion, the official journal for the Society for the Study of Motivation, prove that the shaming is real.
The first study  found that when people address negative emotions toward their relationships or chronic illnesses, it helps them adjust their behavior and deal with the situation better. Those negative emotions actually end up benefiting their overall psychological health. So if people ignore the negative and focus on the positive, they could be doing themselves more harm than good.
The second study , however, found that people who think emotions are easily influenced and can be changed are more likely to blame themselves for the negative emotions they feel than people who think emotions are fixed and out of their control.
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There are two sides to every coin. For example, in 2008, Dutch Olympic long-distance swimming champion and cancer survivor told the British newspaper The Telegraph that he didn’t want to be compared to the Lance Armstrong .
“Armstrong says that positive thinking and doing a lot of sports can save you. I don’t agree,” said van der Weijden. “I even think it’s dangerous because it implies that if you are not a positive thinker all the time you lose … The doctors saved me. I am just lucky.”
Even though this was before Armstrong was exposed for cheating, the world was enthralled with his story. After the truth was revealed, people still held on that positive thinking could really change their physical health.
Various studies have been conducted, trying to see if there was a grasp between thinking positively and the likeliness of developing cancer. For example, one study claimed that women who experienced severe life events at a young age are at a higher risk of developing cancer .
James Coyne, director of the behavioral oncology program at the Abramson Cancer Center and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, believes that the public often takes news like this to mean that positive thinking has been unequivocally proven to be good for your health. The reality is that things are more complicated than that.
Coyne himself conducted a study himself on positivity and cancer, and he found that emotional well-being wasn’t an accurate predictor of whether or not patients with neck and head cancer survived. “The problem with cancer is that it’s so complex. By the time you’re diagnosed it may have been building for decades,” he said .
However, when Coyne tried to intercede and treat depression among heart attack patients, he found the patient’s moods improved, but the rates of a second heart attack didn’t. Ironically, Coyne said, the most evidence for emotion affecting health actually favors negative emotions, not positive ones. For instance, he said, we know anger and depression are correlated with having a second heart attack, however, what’s unproven is whether being positive can reduce the risk.
Another way emotion could affect health, even for illnesses such as cancer, is by affecting the patient’s willingness to stick to the treatment plan. “It could be an indirect effect,” said Anne Harrington, chair of Harvard University’s history of science program and author of “The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine” (W.W. Norton, 2008). “If a person is positive, he or she is more likely to show up for all the treatments to have a better diet to exercise. And if you’re deeply depressed you sleep badly and that’s bad for your health” .
But what does thinking positively do to our brains? This is where thought originates, so it makes sense that our thoughts and our brain are tightly wound together. So can our thoughts really change our brains?
In 1890, William James introduced the science of neuroplasticity, the science of the brain changing itself through thought and therapeutic exercises. His theory at the time was quickly dismissed, as scientists at the time believed that the brain was rigid. Certain parts control certain functions, and if that part was dead or damaged then the function is changed or lost .
Turns out, he was right. Neuroplasticity has become widely accepted by scientists and they are proving that the brain is endlessly adaptable and dynamic. The brain has the power to change its own structure.
The brain controls our every function by sending electronic signals through neural pathways. These signals and pathways are created through repeated actions, this is what growing up is. But sometimes, those pathways can be broken (think stroke, head trauma, etc), and the functions that those pathways controlled are now gone, along with the function.
The good news? Our brains have countless pathways that can be used. Neuroplasticity is the science of training the brain, through extensive practice and therapy, to use these other pathways to complete the functions that were once loss.
It is an extensive effort, but scientists are now looking at neuroplasticity as a vehicle with which they can treat a wide variety of chronic problems and disorders including ;
- Loss of senses — vision, balance and hearing
- Learning disorders and reading problems
- Auditory processing problems
- Autism and hypersensitivity
- The aging brain and memory
- Issues related to love and sex
- Stroke and brain injury recovery
- Cerebral palsy
- Chronic pain
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Psychological trauma
- Depression and anxiety
- Cognitive problems after brain surgery
Proof, although anecdotal, already exists. Dr. Norman Doidge, compiled a book called The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, where people used neuroplasticity to heal their brains and recuperate after brain trauma.
While there is evidence on both sides of the actual ‘power’ behind positive thinking is, it is important to take everything with a grain of salt. Both Coyne and Harrington reflect van der Weijden, saying that these kinds of findings shouldn’t pressure patients into feeling a certain way.
You can’t create a whole without both parts, the good and the bad.
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