Why Positive Thinking Is Bad for You

The “power of positive thinking” is so firmly enshrined in our culture that knocking it is a little like attacking motherhood or apple pie. Many people swear by positive thinking, and quite a few have been helped by it. Nevertheless, it is not a very effective success tool — and it can be downright deleterious. There are much better ways to get the benefits that positive thinking allegedly provides.

Perhaps the statement that best exemplifies positive thinking is “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” It seems so obvious that this is good advice that we never question the wisdom of the adage. But it does not take a whole lot of digging to unearth the flaws in this reasoning.

For one thing, did life really hand you a lemon — or was that merely your initial, unthinking reaction upon finding yourself in a difficult situation? And is being handed a lemon really a bad thing?

No matter what happens to us in life, we tend to think of it as “good” or “bad.” And most of us tend to use the “bad” label three to 10 times as often as the “good” label. When we label something as “bad,” we greatly increase the odds that we will experience it as such. And that is when we assume that we need to apply positive thinking. We have been given a lemon, and we had better scramble to salvage something out of the situation by making some lemonade out of it.

How tiresome and tiring!

Think back on your life. Can you recall instances when something that you initially thought was a bad thing turned out to be not so bad after all — perhaps even spectacularly good?

Maybe, for example, you missed the early-morning train that you always take to get to work on time, and you had to wait a whole hour for the next one. But in that hour, you struck up a conversation with someone else who had missed that train… and a beautiful friendship developed. Or maybe you didn’t get a job that you desperately wanted. But then you were unexpectedly offered a much better job — which you would not have been able to accept had it not been for the earlier rejection.

And consider the story of Olympic champion Michael Phelps. He broke his wrist after slipping on some ice. He was in the middle of intense training for the Beijing games, and thought his career as a swimmer was over. But his coach wouldn’t let him quit. And though he couldn’t swim for a few weeks, he kept training just by kicking his legs.

Phelps did make it to the Olympics, and he won the 100-meter butterfly by one of the closest margins in athletic history — 1/10th of a second. Turns out the weeks of kicking had given him leg strength he’d never had before. While his opponent had to stop kicking and glide at the end of the race, Phelps was able to keep going and win.

Now, let me propose something radical and revolutionary: No matter what happens to you — no matter how terrible it may seem — you do not stick a “bad” label on it. You are fired from your job… your mortgage lender sends you a foreclosure notice… your spouse files for divorce… or whatever. Is it possible, just possible, that the reason you experience such things as personal tragedies is because you have been conditioned to think of them that way?

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning,  Viktor Frankl tells about a beautiful girl from a privileged background who was grateful to be in a concentration camp because it allowed her to connect with a spiritual side of herself that she never knew existed. Observations like this led Frankl into his life’s work of trying to determine why, when faced with extreme adversity, some people flourish while others disintegrate.

Many who rise triumphantly never label what they go through as “bad” and, thus, don’t agonize over it. They simply take it as a given — like an engineer surveying a swamp through which a road is to be built. From his perspective, the swamp is not a bad thing. It is merely something that has to be addressed in his construction plan.

If you never label a situation as “bad,” you won’t experience it that way. You won’t need positive thinking to get yourself through it. And all of the stress associated with figuring out how to make lemonade out of your lemon simply goes away.

That’s a lot different than saying to yourself: “This is bad. Really bad. But somehow I will make some lemonade out of this lemon — and then perhaps it won’t be so bad.” What you’re doing, here, is falling victim to the huge pebble in the positive-thinking shoe. First you think your situation is bad. Then you think you will somehow make it less bad. Meanwhile, you can’t help but wonder if you’re just kidding yourself. And if you don’t manage to make lemonade out of your lemon, you’re devastated — because the success tool you were conditioned to believe in caved in on you. That’s why I say that, in some cases, positive thinking can be harmful.

Can you actually go through life without labeling what happens to you as “good” or “bad”? Sure you can. But you have to train yourself not to do it. You have been conditioned to think of what happens to you as being either bad or good. And you can de-condition yourself. It is neither easy nor fast, but it is possible.

Let’s say you break your leg. Yes, there is some unpleasant stuff you have to do — like having a doctor set the broken bone and going to therapy when the cast comes off. But the real unpleasantness in this situation is what you inflict on yourself: “Why did this have to happen to me? Bad things always come my way. I am in such pain.” All of that is simply baggage. You don’t have to pick up this load — and the only reason you do is because you were never told that you don’t have to.

I am telling you now. Don’t pick up that useless burden. Don’t label what happens to you as “bad.” Then you won’t need positive thinking — and much of the stress in your life will simply disappear. Poof! Just like that.

[Ed. Note: Dr. Srikumar Rao is the author of the new book Happiness at Work — Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful, No Matter What. Visit www.srikumarsrao.com to read more of his articles and to buy the book. You can also follow Dr. Rao on Twitter: @srikumarsrao.

Join Dr. Rao on a FREE teleconference Thursday, March 25. On this call, he will go into detail on many of the strategies found in his Personal Mastery Program for skyrocketing your personal and professional happiness and success, as well as spiritual well-being. Go here to find out more about his program.]