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Is it good to be positive?
Today we’re going to challenge this idea by looking particularly at something that a lot of people do when they get into self-development: the practice of positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations are essentially where you look yourself in the mirror (or write in your journal) and tell yourself all these really positive things about yourself, and try to kind of force them to come true by sheer will.
You might tell yourself that you have certain positive qualities, like you’re a good person or you’re attractive or you’re successful. Or you might “manifest” positive outcomes for your life, like you’re going to have a great business or you’re gonna buy yourself a Porsche or everyone will love you.
Where does it come from?
This whole practice of being positive and trying to force-feed positivity to yourself is actually relatively new. Most humans throughout history have accepted that life is suffering and we have to deal with it.
But during the 80s and 90s we saw a new wave of happiness-seeking break out like a virus. This wave included movies like The Secret which talk about the Law of Attraction and manifesting outcomes through the power of thought. Claims were made that thoughts have a kind of ‘energy’ and ‘vibration’ that determines how the Universe functions.
People got really into this cult-like pursuit of happiness through positivity – a very Epicurean idea that being happy and positive all the time was the key to a successful life. It sounds great on paper, like it makes sense that positive = happy.
The main problem with this equation, however, is that it doesn’t actually work.
Does positivity create success?
The science behind it is flaky at best, and often based on very unreliable studies.
One such study that’s often cited (attributed to Alan Richardson however there’s no record available online), describes an experiment where a bunch of basketball players were told to positively visualize getting the ball in the net, versus a control-group who are told to do nothing in preparation. The people who positively visualized it were apparently significantly more successful in making their shots than the people who didn’t.
Studies like this are celebrated as strong evidence of the power of thoughts/visualization, and conclusions are drawn that being more positive and forcing yourself to think positively has a positive impact on your life.
The problem with studies like these is they are almost entirely based on very short-term results – the kind of booster-shot that you can give yourself before taking an action. In terms of positive visualization affirmations, they do have an effect on very short term upcoming piece of behavior. Unfortunately, that’s about where the impact ends (as we’ll soon discuss).
These studies fail to track the longer-term costs or benefits of forcing yourself to think positively.
the cost of being positive
There is a cost to forced-positivity that nobody seems to be willing to talk about. The cost is in what you might call the ‘bounce back’, which is what happens after being forcefully optimistic and cheerful for a sustained period of time. There’s a couple of things that tend to happen.
One is depression.
How can depression come from positive thinking? Because, after a while, all these short-term little booster shots do not actually solve the main core issues which inevitably re-assert their dominance… only now you also feel like a failure who’s relapsed.
This is one of the problems that can happen with people who do a lot of NLP or hypnotism. Yeah, you can solve short-term issues, but it doesn’t deal with the core problem that’s causing those short-term issues in the first place.
And eventually, those core problems are going to keep coming back and when they do you’re going to feel like a failure because now you suddenly feel like you’re ‘back-sliding’. The truth is, you actually just had a brief little holiday with your positive affirmations and now you’re back to reality. You haven’t failed, you’re just back to where you were.
But it feels like a failure because you had a brief success to compare with. This can compound depression and anxiety and feelings of hopelessness – “Why bother when I always fail in the end anyway?”
The more accurate analysis would be to say, “Oh, it looks like a quick-fix option of forcing myself to think positively didn’t work… guess I better do the more uncomfortable and sustainable work instead.”
The second and much more devastating long-term bounce back effect is OCD, which we’ll talk about in a minute. But first, we must explore how the brain reacts to you trying to force it to be more positive.
lying to yourself
The problem with positive affirmations is essentially you are lying to yourself. You’re telling yourself that you are something that you don’t believe you are, or you’re telling yourself that you can create a result in the future whilst knowing that you can’t predict or control the future, and so on.
So you force-feed yourself these little lies and try to make yourself believe them. This creates cognitive dissonance, a conflict in your brain. One part of you desperately wants to believe that creating good vibes will determine the outcomes in your life, while another part of your brain is calling bullshit on that.
So, for every good thing you try to force yourself to believe, your brain is going to counter it with evidence of bad things. All you’re really doing is stirring up mud – forcing your brain to come up with counterexamples to balance out the lies, reopening old wounds, and reminding yourself of previous failures and trauma.
For example, if I look in the mirror and say, “I’m an awesome person,” immediately my brain responds, “But what about the time you failed and embarrassed yourself last week?” I maybe wouldn’t have thought about that if I hadn’t prompted my brain with a challenge by lying to it.
You can briefly lie to yourself in your conscious mind, but you cannot lie to your subconscious. It knows who you really are and what you’ve really done, and you can’t trick yourself out of believing it.
You can take a brief holiday, where you kind of put yourself in a zoned-out state and believe for a second that it isn’t true, but it will all come back eventually. And the harder you push, the harder it will push back.
OCD – attached to thoughts
Now the problem with fighting your brain and battling with lie versus truth is eventually you become even more fused or attached to the very concept of thinking. And this is where OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) makes an appearance.
OCD is essentially an extreme version of what we all do, which is becoming attached to negative thoughts. We can’t help it. It’s human to have fucked up thoughts and get stuck on them.
OCD people basically get more stuck than anyone else, and then feel compelled to develop certain patterns and rituals to deal with those thoughts because they believe them to be true. You know how you worry about someone, so you send them a text to see if they’re OK? That’s a ritual. OCD people playing with light-switches or cleaning the bathroom 10 times per day are basically doing the same thing.
If you’re training yourself to try and control your thinking, fighting against your subconscious with dishonest thoughts, all you’re really doing in the long term is becoming even more attached to the process of thinking, even more attached to thoughts.
You’re creating a meta-belief: “Thoughts are very important!”
At some point, you’re going to lose the battle of lie vs truth. Even the most positive people have a rough day. Only now you’re also stuck with attachment to thoughts because you’ve been training yourself to treat them as important. You’re obsessed with thoughts.
Obsessive attachment to thoughts + losing the battle with negative thoughts = Depression.
The negative thoughts are going to pile in once you get depressed and you’re going to drown in them.
Psychology, and indeed philosophy throughout the ages, has shown us that the more attached we are to our thoughts, the more miserable we become. It’s undeniable. Detachment from thoughts – being able to observe them without being in them – is clearly one of the most healthy principles that you can engage in. Positive affirmations, or forcing yourself to think positively, is the opposite of detachment.
correlation with success is not causation
A mistake that advocates of Law of Attraction often make is they believe that their successes in life can be attributed to positive thinking (i.e. being very attached to thoughts). They are victims of fundamental attribution error (a.k.a. cause-and-effect bias) – they believe that positivity is what causes them to succeed because they want to believe that.
They’re not seeing that the process of planning and goal setting is actually quite helpful and is the reason for their success, but that they don’t need to lie to themselves to do it. You can have a visual image of where you’re trying to get to in the future, you can create a plan of action of how you’re going to do it, and then you can take those actions. No positive thinking is required – just determined action.
A lot of people correlate their wins with Law of Attraction. They think, “I was really thinking about getting a Porsche and now I’ve got a Porsche, so the thoughts bought me a Porsche!” Actually, the thoughts didn’t do shit. You bought a Porsche because that was the result of whatever plan you had and the actions that you took according to that plan. The thoughts you had along the way are an almost irrelevant distraction.
Sometimes, it can seem mystical. I know that when I focus on being of service, I suddenly get a wave of new clients. It’s tempting to believe that my giving ‘vibrations’ provoked the universe into rewarding me. But a much more rational explanation is that my service has been valuable to people and has created a trustworthy reputation, and so people wish to reciprocate by hiring me. No vibes needed – just simple cause and effect.
You’ve got to stop attributing the successes or the failures in your life to thoughts. Thoughts are just noises that take place in your head. Whatever’s happening in your life is due to the actions you have taken, combined with fate – the millions of variables beyond your control.
Do what’s right no matter what you think
Actions can be taken even if you’re having negative thoughts. You don’t need positive thoughts to take positive action, you just need to move your body.
When people get stuck on positive affirmations and positive thinking, they become trapped in a belief system that you need to feel good and think positively in order to take action. It’s simply not true. You can take action at any time – you don’t need thoughts to support you.
The best way to break out of this belief – or at least this is how I broke out of it – is to move away from trying to feel good and think positively and move towards doing the right thing no matter how you think or feel.
This is where the concept of living with integrity comes up.
Rather than trying to think of being a good person and force-feed yourself beliefs about being a good person, just be a good person. No matter how you feel, do the right thing.
This what we at BROJO call “valued living” or “living by your values.” We’ve got an entire course on how to discover your core values and the other courses on how to live by them, and it’s absolutely free.
Alternatives to positive thinking
I’d recommend you try something counterintuitive to positive visualization: negative visualization, which I got from Stoicism.
Rather than trying to imagine everything going well and trying to convince yourself that you’re going to succeed, try to prepare for everything going to shit. Imagine everything going wrong – imagine all the worst-case scenarios coming true, but then imagine how you’re going to deal with them when that happens.
Prepare for the worst rather than hope for the best.
It makes you far more grounded and solid and based in reality. Also, it almost never goes that badly, so you’re going to be pleasantly surprised and grateful throughout the day for what reality provides you, rather than constantly disappointed that reality didn’t live up to your fantasy.
Secondly, the age-old practice of mindfulness – being able to be in the present moment and see thoughts for what they really are, which is just noise inside your head that has no real significance.
There are mindfulness practices that everyone can get into like meditation, or practicing mindfulness in terms of physical actions that you take (e.g. focusing on the pressure of your feet on the ground as you walk).
Basically, it’s all about understanding that success is about what you do, not what you think. What you think is just a radio station playing along while you do the right thing.
Forget trying to be positive. Forget trying to force-feed yourself beliefs. Forget trying to control the future and the outcomes and the results that you want. Instead, focus on being a person that you’ll be proud of, through measurable behavior.
This way, even if you don’t get the results that you dream of, you’ll be a person that you’re proud of. And that is going to make you feel good about yourself.
Thank you so much for reading/watching. Please subscribe to the channel and share this around if you found this helpful. Of course, get in contact firstname.lastname@example.org if there’s anything I can do to further help you with this.
I’ll see you next time.