Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work

One of the great fallacies in the self-help industry is the notion that you can change your life with “positive thinking.”

The purveyors of positivism, starting with Napoleon Hill and including the people who now promote The Secret, contend that we all have, at our conscious disposal, the means to transform ourselves into walking, breathing success machines.

Some self-help gurus sell positive thinking because they know it is one of the most lucrative products to put in the marketplace. Change one thought and you can change your life! What better promise can you make to an underachieving, wanna-be-rich-and-successful couch potato?

And purely from a profit point of view, they are right. Positive thinking products making quick-and-easy promises account for more than a billion dollars a year in direct-mail and Internet sales. And that’s just for the companies I personally know. The total number is probably multiples of that.

I am not saying all proponents of positive thinking are hucksters. Many are honest men and women who believe in the concept because they use it successfully in their own lives. They are usually people who have always been accomplished, excelling in sports or academics or business almost from the start. Their repeated successes gave them confidence that they can do just about anything. And they readily tap into that underlying feeling of confidence whenever they face a new challenge. In their hearts, they know they can succeed. So when they take on anything new, they can’t help but believe they will be successful.

But what about the rest of the world? The 80 percent of the population that got C’s in school and sat on the bench during ball games and had little or no success in business? What messages are buried in their hearts?

Well, the positive thinkers will tell you that is exactly the point. The people who struggle on without success are failing because they don’t really think they can succeed. If only they could change their thinking, they would do better.

And so the therapy for these self-doubters is positive thinking. Stand in front of the mirror in the morning and repeat 20 times: “I am a good person. I can do anything. I will be successful.”

It’s very appealing. Two or three minutes of talking to your mirrored image, and a mental switch will be turned. Everything after that will come to you effortlessly.

The reality is different.

Does Positive Thinking Work?
A study mentioned by Julie Norem in her book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking confirms my belief that though positive thinking may work for people who already have an optimistic way of looking at their abilities, it doesn’t work for people who are pessimists.

Researchers divided their subjects (all identified as pessimists) into two groups. They told one group that, based on their past performance, they were going to do well on a standardized test they were about to be given. And these subjects indicated on a pre-test survey that they did, indeed, feel optimistic about their results. The second group was not given any encouragement. The results? The first group, the temporarily optimistic pessimists, actually performed worse on the test.

I’ve been critical of the idea of positive thinking for years, because I think it is useless to the people who most need help in changing their lives: people who have deeply held negative feelings about what they can accomplish.

Positive thinking works only for those who are emotionally positive. Usually, these are people who have a history of being successful. People who have been good wrestlers, for example, find it easy to believe they will win their next wrestling match. Entrepreneurs like yours truly find it easy to believe their next business venture will be successful.

When you are emotionally positive, you can’t help but think positively about everything.

So thinking positively helps. But it only helps the 20 percent of the population that is already emotionally positive. The rest of the population, the 80 percent of the world that is emotionally negative, cannot be helped by positive thinking.

I knew this was true, though I didn’t know exactly why. When I wrote about it in the past, many ETR readers objected. When I spoke about it at conferences, attendees complained to me afterward. They seemed angry. As if I was trying to take something precious away from them.

They believed I was trying to deny their best chance of succeeding. Meanwhile, what I was really trying to do was get them to stop conning themselves and take the specific actions that would help them achieve their goals.

As the years passed, I would meet some of these same people at other conferences. They were still attending self-improvement seminars, still carrying positive-thinking books, and still upset with me for telling them that positive thinking wouldn’t change their fortunes. It had, after all, worked for the people promoting all those seminars and books.

Year after year. Decade after decade. They stayed poor. They stayed stuck. But they wouldn’t give up their dream of changing their lives quickly and easily by changing their thinking.

I was never able to articulate why it was that I knew positive thinking would never work for these people. But then I read a book that helped me understand: A General Theory of Love. It was written by three eminent psychotherapists and neuroscientists. I have posted my notes on this book on my website (which I recommend you read), but let me tell you very briefly what it taught me that sheds light on this issue.

Essentially, our emotions are deeply rooted in the way our minds are wired. There is a scientific basis for many of our emotional responses and how we relate to others. At the same time, our interactions with the world and people around us have a profound impact on our attitude. This interaction, which can actually alter neural pathways in the brain, begins in infancy and influences our development.

So if you grew up with negative feelings about your ability to achieve success, that’s the way your brain is wired. And no amount of positive thinking will change it.

Here is what the authors of A General Theory of Love have to say about the self-help industry:

“A vigorous self-help movement has championed the hoax that a strong-willed person, outfitted with the proper directions, can select good relationships. Those seduced into the promise of a quick fix gobble it up. But the physiology of emotional life cannot be dispelled with a few words…

“… Self-help books are like car repair manuals: You can read them all day, but doing so doesn’t fix a thing.”

To change yourself from being emotionally negative to emotionally positive, you have to get some solid successes under your belt. And that’s where another success technique – visualization – comes in. But this one works. Visualization is a proven and useful technique for achieving peak performance.

It’s no secret that many of the most successful people in the world – including entertainers, athletes, and CEOs – used visualization to help them achieve their goals.

Take Tiger Woods…

“Visualization has become a major part of my shot-making, especially as it pertains to shaping shots… It makes a huge difference in your performance.”

And Jack Nicklaus, one of the greatest golfers to ever grace the game, said, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.”

Famed sports psychologist Bob Rotella charges thousands of dollars per session to help pro athletes and business executives achieve success through visualization. In addition to coaching pro PGA golfers and top athletes in the NBA and NFL, he coaches high-ranking executives at Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, General Electric, Coca-Cola, and many other companies.

Matt Furey – world-class martial artist and top Internet marketer – credits visualization for his success. Matt’s wrestling coach told the scrawny, uncoordinated high school teen he never had a chance. But by using the power of visualization, Matt gained the confidence to win match after match – and became a champion wrestler in high school and college.

Later, Matt became World Kung Fu Champion – thanks, again, to visualization and the very positive attitude that was now buried deep in his limbic brain (the part of the brain involved in emotional behavior).

As I said, people who are emotionally positive about their chances for success have a history of succeeding. They’re doers, not dreamers. So forget about positive thinking. Instead, start rewiring your brain by working toward the goal you want to achieve or practicing the skill you want to master.

At first, you won’t feel very good about what you’re doing, because you won’t be very good at it. But stick with it. Remember that it takes about thousand hours to achieve competency in anything that’s worthwhile.

Start by setting very modest objectives. Use visualization to help you excel at specific tasks and overcome specific challenges. But don’t waste your time repeating useless mantras. Actions – only actions – will reprogram your limbic brain and turn you into a real “success machine.”

[Ed. Note: “Thinking positive” is a success technique that so-called experts have touted for years. We offer dozens of simple – and more effective – strategies that you can use to accomplish all your goals in our Total Success Achievement program. ]

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.