Does Positive Thinking Really Work?

How many of us have been told to just think positive? This belief that if we have a positive outlook everything will be okay, seems to be what everyone’s striving for these days. I hear this all the time. Given all the recent hype about positive thinking in the media, I decided to divulge into this topic a little deeper. Is an infinite positive mindset even achievable, let alone helpful? This type of mindset doesn’t entirely resonate with how I see the world. Therefore I’m going to compare positive thinking to rational thinking to make a case for how rational thinking is a lot more superior. You might be wondering what’s the difference between positive and rational thinking because there’s a slight overlap between the two. They’re commonly mistaken for one another, and because of this, I want to present their clear distinction.

Positive thinking is often pollyanna in nature. It tends to invalidate the emotion that we’re experiencing, and makes phony claims and promises we cannot keep. For example, sometimes a raincloud is just a raincloud, and there isn’t always a silver lining. Some situations are just bad— plain and simple. Imagine going through a tough break up, a death in the family, or losing your job. How invalidating would it be to only think positive if these circumstances are very negative to you? Some examples of positive thoughts are: “Everything’s going to be ok,” “ You’ll do just fine,” and “You can do anything you put your mind to”. The list goes on. Now, how can we substantiate any of these claims? Are we clairvoyant and able to see into the future? How will we know everything will be okay? How can we prove that just wanting something badly enough means it will indefinitely happen? What if we don’t do well, how do we still feel okay about it?

Looking at the negative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in some instances, it’s very functional. The acknowledgment of realistic threats motivates us to solve problems (if solvable), as long as we don’t stew on them. Without clearly estimating how bad something is or might be, it wouldn’t encourage us to create a problem-solving strategy. We need to be clear in the estimation of a threat to adequately tackle it. A solely positive outlook is limited because it focuses on the premise that everything will work out in the end—something we cannot be certain of. Another shortcoming is that when things go south we often reflect on the last time we told ourselves that “everything would be okay,” therefore we’re less likely to believe these positive thoughts again, and abandon them altogether.

On the other hand, rational thinking is an obtainable goal. In a way, rational thoughts are positive because we usually feel better once we believe them. Hence the slight overlap. Rational thoughts are based on science and reasoning. We can use irrefutable evidence to prove them to be true and come to logical conclusions. Some examples of rational thoughts are: “Even if it doesn’t work out, I can handle it because I’ve handled worse before.” “Just because I want to excel doesn’t mean that I absolutely have to.” “Failing wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, it would just be unpleasant.” “Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose, but a loss wouldn’t define me as a complete failure, because one part doesn’t equal a whole.” Rational thinking is better than positive thinking because we can think rational anytime and anywhere—whether we’re winning or losing. Rational thoughts are based in reality, and therefore help us cope much better because they’re actually true.