Response to Listener article “How positive thinking is fooling us” by Jane Clifton

by CBT Psychology ~ April 9th, 2010. Filed under: Blog, News.

Listener, March 20-26: article “How positive thinking is fooling us” by Jane Clifton.

It can be imagined that Jane Clifton felt a great sense of achievement after publishing her article ‘Down with positivity!’. Journalists are supposed to create debate – and her opinion piece will undoubtedly achieve this goal. However, there is also the question of causing harm by presenting a one-sided and not very well researched (or deliberately selective?) view point. It is time-consuming having to rebut extreme viewpoints that have been forwarded ‘just to create debate’. Nevertheless it seems necessary, in order to restore some balance.
First of all, I would like to ask Jane whether she has defined “being positive”? Does she mean optimism?, or happiness?, or cheerfulness? It seems that she is on a crusade against ‘magical thinking’ (as evidenced in ‘The Secret’ or in many writings by various life coaches). Would she suggest that we are better off (and healthier) when we are negative and pessimistic?; as these are the true opposites to the maligned ‘positivity’.
As always, the truth lies in the middle. We need to be realistic about the issues life throws at us and we need to examine various solutions in order to generate a plan and to feel self-reliant and ‘in charge’. We also need to know when problemsolving does not work any more and when we need to change our perspective and our thinking about a problem. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches exactly that: If life throws you a lemon, either make lemonade (do problemsolving) or learn to like lemons (change your perceptions and thinking). Both these options will require optimism and the attitude of generating solutions and being in control.
It is interesting that Jane Clifton has not picked up why Ehrenreich was so angry when writing her book: First, she wanted to be validated for her pain; then she could go on to find remedies and interventions. Positivity does not cure cancer, but it helps in order to remain active, full of energy and goal focused (nobody is advocating a Pollyanna attitude, which is denial of the problem and the opposite of taking control). Negativity leads to rumination, passivity, pessimism and ultimately inertia – which is definitely not the way to approach any challenge, let alone cancer (or global warming for that matter). It seems a bit doubtful (literary license?) that anyone would get ‘fired when they are not cheerful enough’; however, an active ‘go-getting’ attitude might be more desirable for the success of a company, than pessimism and wallowing in the negatives…
The movement of positive psychology is much more evolved than “patronizing and infantile magical thinking”. There are thousands of good articles and an abundance of solid, evidence based research, which will disprove the statement that there are “no clinical studies correlating health to happiness”. They can be easily found: for example a recent study demonstrated clearly that ‘happiness is related to cutting the risk of a cardiac episode’ (Karina Davidson, European Heart Journal), and I am sure many other letter writers will point out relevant research. Scientific studies also prove correlations between optimism and happiness and improved cognitive functioning, improved memory performance, longevity, or better general coping skills, to name just a few. We are a work in progress, our brain is a work in progress and we can take charge to improve ourselves and our lives and as a consequence our environment; if we are pessimistic, and negative and don’t believe in possible solutions, then we won’t! Hillary climbed his mountain because he was positive that he could!
Psychologists (in particular CBT psychologists) have spent much time lately to teach clients how to recognise their thinking patterns, how to modify and influence their emotions, and how to change behaviour patterns. The underlying message is, that we all can take control in our lives, even if we are faced with a ‘catastrophe’ and have to modify our thinking and our actions. It is very satisfying to see people lose their fears, stop their avoidance, and become less dependent on ‘gurus’, medical cures, or other external factors. Being positive IS good for us if we use it actively to change what we can and to accept what we can’t change. I hope that the readers of this article have not fallen into the trap of the black and white thinking and that nobody equates positive thinking with complacency or ‘magical thinking’. A bit more research would have avoided that trap for Jane Clifton as well…
We would be delighted to explain to Jane more about the recent developments and achievements of psychology in people’s lives.

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