The perils of positive thinking

In a past Daily Dispatch, I mentioned how ineffective “management/motivational gurus” and “lifestyle coaches” really are when it comes to really helping people manage the stress of everyday life. But the messages these gurus dole out may actually be worse than ineffective. They can be downright hazardous to your health.

Last summer in California (where else?),  21 people were treated for burns after walking barefoot over  hot coals at an event billed as “Unleash the Power Within,” featuring the irrepressible Tony Robbins.

One paying participant who got burned, literally claimed “I wasn’t at my peak state.” He was told to think of it as walking on “cool moss.” But better advice would have been to realize it was hot coals. 

You see, as powerful as the mind-body connection is, it can be a dangerous tool in the hands of the amateur “motivational guru.” And not just when it comes to stunts like walking on hot coals.

Psychological research has exposed some of the common exercises employed at business team-building retreats and in business “best-sellers” for the frauds they really are.

Take visualization, for example. It can be a powerful tool for combatting cancer, infections and other illnesses—when the imagery is guided by someone with expertise and ethics. But it turns out that visualizing certain outcomes under the wrong conditions, actually leads to declines in motivation and achievement, since visualizers seem to “feel” like they have already achieved their objectives.

Another common motivational technique is affirmation. But repeating meaningless slogans like “I am lovable,” or “I am filled with joy,” can backfire. Research at the University of Waterloo found that mouthing such statements actually makes people with low self-esteem feel even worse.

And then you have goal setting. A ubiquitous management exercise. But it has been found by business school studies to distort overall missions, narrow perspectives and contribute to ethical lapses. (Which reminds me of the “five-year plans” businesses always have—but change every year.)

What is missing from these motivational equations is the idea of balance. Ancient health traditions all posit the idea of balance as being the healthy, successful approach to life.  Taking the good with bad. Learning to live with ups and downs, vs. straight, rocket-ship trajectories to ever greater “success.”

Instead of feeling entitled to expect the best, plan for the worst and hope for the best, or even the “next best” thing (as counseled by the late Warren Zevon).

That combines the benefits of optimism with the pragmatic survival skills of realism.

And as strange as it might seem, being able to visualize the worst case scenario actually reduces anxiety levels. When you can soberly assess how bad things can possibly get, you usually discover ways that you could cope. If it ever got that bad. And it usually doesn’t. So, either way, you come out ahead.  

Another peril of persistent “positive thinking” is the relentless focus on the better future (like being forever stuck on the Carousel of Progress at Disneyland). This ignores the joys of the present and is the exact opposite of Mindfulness Meditation, for example (see my book with Don McCown on “New World Mindfulness.”) 

And in traditional Buddhist Meditation a big part of the picture is actually learning to resist an urge to “think positively.” That is, to let feelings arise and pass without assigning content or judgement. According to pain studies, meditation reduces feeling pain by turning non-judgmentally toward the pain, not by ignoring or denying it. (Tell that to those firewalkers who weren’t in their “peak states.”)

Social critics have even suggested that the infiltration of this “positive thinking” pseudo-philosophy may have helped bring about our current financial crisis. Back in 2006 at Christmastime, when banks were doling out mortgages with nothing down, I remember hearing a PBS radio show commentary about how new homeowners were “buying” houses they could never afford if one of two spouses lost their job or got sick. Two very distinct possibilities. But as Americans, of course, they were “entitled” to the house they wanted, not just the one they could afford.

As they say, “ a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” And so is a good mind-body perspective in the hands of amateurs. 

To get a scientific perspective on mind-body therapies and the ones that will work best for you as an individual see my book with Mike Jawer, “Your Emotional Type,” available at your local bookstore as well as online.