I have sometimes heard others say “Oh, but that’s just positive thinking”, to dismiss a suggestion or course of action, This seems to suggest that some people are mistrustful of Positive Thinking (like being mistrustful of the placebo effect, but that’s another story).

I can see why. Positive Thinking is so often bandied about as a quick fix, and people who promote it can come across as evangelical know-it-alls. This is a shame, because they are well-intended, but it also misses a point.

Positive Thinking is not the same as thinking positively. The first is like an directive, the latter is an aspiration or a way of life.

There are any number of books on Positive Thinking, you can buy them by the yard, but I have had to search for information on thinking positively. Some authors conflate the two, so you’ll find something on thinking positively in texts on Positive Thinking, which is confusing.

Books – or gurus for that matter – that tell you what to think are fine if you want quick inspiration, and if you prefer style to substance. Positive Thinking mantras tend to be flashy with a subtext of “Hey, look what I discovered! You can have some too!”

How to think, not what to think

If it tells you anything, thinking positively tells you how to think, rather than prescribing what to think. If you are knee-deep in a mire of personal problems, facing a possible crisis, or deeply depressed (these are just examples, not suggestions), you won’t find it easy to follow the instruction to “think positively”, or “see the glass as half-full, not half-empty”. Comments like this, though well-intentioned, can also appear dismissive and simply tell the sufferer that the speaker doesn’t understand.

Thinking positively is a bottom-up approach to life. It comes from within and is founded on personal belief and an attitude. It is part faith and part understanding. It says “You can choose how you look at this situation”. And understanding that we have choice doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to make a choice at that moment.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.