The Truth Behind Positive Thinking

The following is a guest post from Mike Bundrant

We’re all brainwashed.

Think positively or risk failure and misery. I beg to differ.

The truth is, if you insist on thinking positively all the time., you will probably be less happy. You may also set yourself up for disappointment and even massive failure.

How is this the case?

The Positive Thinking Delusion

The popular sentiment around positive thinking is that if you think things will go well, then they will indeed go well! In other words, you end up being delusional a good percentage of the time.

Things don’t always go well, and rarely as planned, right?

Let’s look at some gut-wrenching examples of positive thinking train wrecks.

Then, we’ll explore some viable alternatives to positive thinking culture.

Reverend Robert Schuller

Positive thinking legend, the Reverend Robert Schuller (Never Say Impossible!) is known for his inspirational writing, the Hour of Power religious broadcast, and the striking Crystal Cathedral in Southern California.

His motivational speaking served to ‘pump up’ thousands, even though Schuller’s personal success ultimately imploded.

Bankruptcy and loss of the Crystal Cathedral were unfortunate consequences.

The final blow came when his fractured family pleaded for the public to cover the cost of his funeral through a popular crowd funding website.

This is tragic. Schuller was no doubt a wonderful man. The positive thinking belief system he helped create, however, failed him in significant ways. Did Schuller hold a personal tendency to deny the possibility of negative outcomes?

The Secret Didn’t Save…

James Arthur Ray

We needn’t rehash James Arthur Ray’s demise here.

Tims Note: Oh yes we must. He is the dude who made his name from the travesty that was the movie, The Secret and then proceeded to scam people into attending his sweat lodge in Arizona only for some not to make it out alive.

By the way, he’s out of prison now and back working in self development (sic)

We all know that he was convicted of felony negligent homicide and did hard time. The career and life of this law of attraction guru went straight to hell.

This leaves us with only one question: If the law of attraction is an unwritten and universal truth, how did one of its best practitioners fail in such a monumental, criminal way?

Answer: The law of attraction is definitely NOT a universal truth. Everyone is susceptible to mistakes, bad fortune and direct (even if unintended) behavioral consequences, regardless of how you may or may not be thinking.

The United States of America

As long as we’re talking monumental failure here, let’s mention the catastrophic financial debacle in America. Was the Western economic collapse fueled by positive thinking?

Sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich thinks so. Ehrenreich suspects that runaway optimism had taken such a hold on America that anyone concerned about negative outcomes was deemed a toxic person, a naysayer.

Shunning voices of warning, the U.S. kept fueling its greed, making high-risk loans and ignoring obvious principles of financial sanity.

Compulsive positive thinking has its pitfalls. If Barbara Ehrenreich’s position has any validity, we all need to wake up from our positive-only bias and do so quickly.

Alternatives to the Bias of Positive Thinking


My personal favorite comes from reading Oliver Burkeman’s hard-hitting book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

In it, Burkeman makes a case for stoicism. This isn’t the stoicism of modern thought, but the ancient philosophy of many Roman scholars.

Stoicism suggests the following: As you make your plans in life, logically consider the worst-case scenario and accept that. Then, as you move ahead, whatever happens above and beyond the worst-case scenario will encourage your appreciation and gratitude.

Does a stoic point of view suggest that you are likely to veer toward failure?

Not at all.

Remember, the law of attraction is totally bogus. A stoic point of view is actually a mature point of view. It requires you to give up the magical thinking that should have been left in your childhood nursery.

Your efforts will pay off just as often. However, when you experience inevitable failures, you won’t be thrown by them nearly as often.

Yin and Yang

I’m not an expert on Eastern thought. However, the concept that everything has its opposite can save a delusional positive thinker from the unexpected.

It can work like this: Every time you envision something positive, also envision the opposite and deal with it.

What Is The Downside?

For example:

If you plan getting rich and look forward to rolling in cash, consider the possible downside of so much cash. The downside exists. Why not face it? With a more balanced perspective, move ahead!

If you can’t wait to quit your job and work from home, consider the positive attributes of being employed outside your home and the negative aspects of working solely from home. Then, make a self-aware choice.

Go for balance above fantastical optimism every time. It’s safer, more realistic and offers fewer disappointments.

Focus on Personal Effectiveness

Finally, consider a skill-based approach to life. While this may not be a complete philosophy in itself, pursuing effectiveness is a powerful, pragmatic way to go.

It frees you from trying to predict the future, focusing squarely on the present. Apply your skills, make your best effort and let the chips fall where they may!

This is where skills like NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming can become extraordinarily valuable. NLP focuses on implementing effective strategies.

Learn to communicate with precision, manage your mind, become flexible in your thinking and creative in your problem solving. With a keen set of skills to back you, you’ll feel less dependent on magical thinking.

Regardless of the skill set, focusing on effectiveness empowers you to get the best results of which you’re capable. And it always leaves the door open for improvement.

No fantasies or denial of reality necessary.

Interestingly, none of these alternatives rule out positive thinking.

Think positively, yes. Just don’t insist and don’t believe it’s the only option.

Author Bio

Mike Bundrant is co-founder of the iNLP Center, which offers interactive online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

He is also author of Your Achilles Eel