Positively Misguided:

The Myths & Mistakes of the Positive Thinking Movement

SEE BELOW for a critique of this article and a response by the author)

by Steve Salerno

My college football coach was the kind of guy Stanley Kubrik must have had in mind when he conceived the over-the-top drill sergeant for his classic Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket. During one game midway in my sophomore year, my offensive-line cohorts and I were having trouble opening holes for our ball carriers. Coach pulled us aside at half-time and lined us up against a wall. He then walked the line and — from a distance of maybe two inches — screamed into each of our faces in turn, “I want you to tell me now, are you ever gonna miss another block!?” There was a pungent Anglo-Saxon gerund between another and block, but good taste compels me to omit it.

The only acceptable answer was “No sir!”, which we too were expected to scream at ear-splitting volume. This would assure Coach of our mettle, dedication, and worthiness to have him browbeat us for the rest of the season. But to me, Coach’s question sounded unreasonable. I still had two-and-a-half seasons of football ahead of me. What assurances could I give? And so, when my turn came, I drew a breath and said, “Look, Coach, I certainly don’t want to miss another block! But probably yes, I think I will miss a few. Now and then.”

From the bewildered look on Coach’s face, you’d think I’d just morphed into a six-foot-four-inch wombat right before his eyes. For a moment he just stared at me. Then he exploded. Labeling me “a smart-ass” who was “out to show him up,” he banished me to the end of the bench. Not long after play resumed, however, he quietly inserted me back in the game. It seems my replacement — one of those players who would “never miss another block” — was missing quite a few of them.

There’s no mistaking the allure of an outlook in which you’ll make every block, get every job you apply for, close every sales call, and win the heart of every man or woman who catches your eye. This became clear to me many years post-college when I began research for a book about the human-potential movement. I quickly realized how invested Americans were in their optimism — and how irate they’d become at being challenged, or even just questioned, on it; I was encountering what essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, writing later in Harper’s, would bracket as “pathological” hope. It’s a world-view that’s seductive and uplifting and ennobling — all of that — and yet, evidence and common sense suggest it has nothing to do with setting (and implementing) realistic goals, establishing (and observing) priorities and, perhaps most important, recognizing valid limitations and obstacles.

In a culture whose unquenchable thirst for self-improvement is projected to reach $14 billion in direct expenditures by 2010 (as forecast by Marketdata Enterprises), the primacy of a “positive mental attitude” (PMA) is unquestioned. Faith in the catalyzing effect of optimism, self-confidence, and the other variously labeled components of a PMA may be the defining trait of the zeitgeist. Positivity is the touchstone, the sine qua non of successful American living.

The Rise of the Positive Mental Attitude Movement

Cultural reinforcement of all this is potent and ubiquitous. Positivity is central to many an Oprah Winfrey Show, while optimism and the general maintenance of a “can-do spirit” form the themes of every other self-help best-seller. Google “positive mental attitude” and you will be rewarded with a quarter-million hits. That’s not as astonishing as the fact that on the 20th page of hits — the point where most Google results have long since degraded into tertiary meanings — the results for PMA remain tightly focused around the core idea: improving your life through happy thoughts.

Positive thinking even enjoys the imprimatur of the psychological mainstream, thanks to Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and father of so-called positive psychology. “Posi-psych” advocates a glass-is-half-full approach to therapy, and endorses the idea that upbeat thoughts are their own self-fulfilling reward. Last October, hundreds of psychologists from two dozen nations attended the annual Positive Psychology International Summit, cosponsored by Toyota.

The corporate world is fully bought-in. According to the American Society for Training and Development, increasing portions of the $50 billion or so that companies invest annually in training are earmarked for motivational speakers, off-site seminars, and “wilderness programs” designed to instill a positive, confident outlook. When Meeting Professionals International surveyed its membership in 2004, 81% preferred celebrity-delivered motivation over skills-intensive training. On the lecture circuit, Tony Robbins and his fellow motivational speakers and self-help coaches have been joined by a colorful and improbable cast of self-styled gurus including victims of Alpine disasters, former gang-bangers, and confessed crack addicts; there’s even room for a mob turncoat like erstwhile Colombo Family underboss Mike Franzese. All dutifully explain how they couldn’t have done it without their PMAs.

Optimism or the lack thereof drives the oscillations of U.S. financial markets to a greater degree than the measurable performance of the companies listed there. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan certified this truism in that memorable December 1996 speech wherein he used the phrase “irrational exuberance” to characterize the climate of investment. Though Fortune 500 America was no less solvent the day after Greenspan’s remarks than the day before, Wall Street — its own optimism badly shaken — went into a nosedive.

In politics, leaders making major policy speeches on matters of vital importance will proffer optimism as an IOU for actual results, and it’s a currency that the American public uncynically accepts. Former president George W. Bush voiced optimism about any number of things: that the Iraqi government could sustain itself and form the template for a newly democratic Middle East; that the U.S. could fashion out of disparate agendas an immigration policy that is all things to all people; that he could defuse those chronic nu-cu-lar tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. (If he couldn’t defuse them, his chief Pentagon Star Wars expert, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, was optimistic about our chances of shooting down any incoming missiles.)

But even politics takes a back seat to sports, where winning and losing are explained almost entirely in terms of PMA. In post-game interviews, athletes and their coaches glorify the “mental game,” speaking of gut checks and emotional turning points and fire in the belly — everything but the raw physical skills that separate a Roger Federer or Serena Williams from you and me. The media, too, suspend disbelief when it comes to the putative link between wanting and winning. Given a successful outcome, sportswriters ignore obvious explanations (talent? lots of practice? “the breaks”?) and strain instead to find the PMA that presaged it. “He just wanted it more” is an oft-heard explanation for why one athlete bested another, even when it comes down to a fractional difference in points or time that could have just as easily gone the other way. When the Miami Heat bested the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals, AP set the tone for the authorized media story line by keying its wrap-up to Heat Coach Pat Riley’s “promise” to bring an NBA title to Florida. That Riley, himself a banquet superstar, made this promise when he first took the helm of the team in 1995 did not seem to trouble anyone; no more than the fact that a number of teams whose coaches hadn’t made any promises managed to win titles in the interim. The sports-pundits followed the script, framing the Heat’s victory as vindication of that dusty, 11-year-old oath.

Such tendencies have produced some exquisitely silly Olympic moments — like the day in Atlanta in 1996 when NBC’s track announcers seemed determined to credit sprinter Michael Johnson’s heroics to everything but his foot-speed. They hailed Johnson’s confidence, his mental preparation, his inner resolve. You’d have thought the possibility that Johnson was simply faster than his opponents didn’t occur to anyone.

In sum, then, it can be said that Americans want to be positive, to surround themselves with others who are positive, to entrust their destinies and very lives to those who exude positivity. What America really believes in is belief.

The irony is this: The notion that the riddle of success is more easily solved by attitude than aptitude may be one of the more subtly destructive forces in American society. Not only is it a reproach to rational thought, but in a society already veering ominously towards narcissism, this “hyping of hope” also erodes reverence for hard work, patience, scholarship, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, due diligence and the other time-honored components of success. (see Mike Rowe talk on "Work")

The Secret of Self Esteem

A definitive recitation of how we came to this state of affairs is best left to historians and social psychologists. But one can safely posit that optimism is an American “race memory”: a logical extension of the pioneering spirit and sense of manifest destiny that drove the earliest settlers. As New York Times editorial board member Adam Cohen has written: “Pessimism … is the most un-American of philosophies.” Positivity is in the American gene. It’s also subtly evoked in the founding precept of American democracy, the poetic declaration that “all men are created equal,” which proponents of mental attitude have bastardized to imply that “all men [and women] are equally capable.” Or, recast in the importunate language that’s typical of self-help materials, “Don’t let anyone take away your dreams!”

The universal appeal of that sentiment was unmistakable in the positive-thinking phenomenon of 2007, The Secret — with its reported 6 million books and DVDs now in circulation. Anchored in the so-called Law of Attraction, The Secret argues that we are “living magnets” — that what we believe in, good or bad, will find its way to us. Armed with “knowledge that has been known by the greatest leaders, discoverers and philosophers,” says The Secret’s creator, Rhonda Byrne, “there is not anything any human cannot be, do or have…not a single thing. No limits whatsoever.” To Byrne, mind governs matter. And that’s that.

Like many of the touchy-feely messages that flood modern America, The Secret is about the rejection of the “inconvenient” truths of the physical world. In the broad culture, science and logic have fallen out of fashion. We are, after all, a people who increasingly abandon orthodox medicine for mind-body regimens whose own advocates not only refuse to cite clinical proof, but dismiss science itself as “disempowering.” (The rallying cry that “you have within you the energies you need to heal” is one reason why visits to practitioners of all forms of alternative medicine now outnumber visits to traditional family doctors by a margin approaching two-to-one.) What I find most remarkable about The Secret, however, is that it somehow mainstreamed the solipsistic “life is whatever you think it is” mindset that once was associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The Secret was (and remains) the perfect totem for its time, uniquely captivating two polar generations: Baby Boomers reaching midlife en masse and desperate to unshackle themselves from everything they’ve been until now; and young adults weaned on indulgent parenting and — especially — indulgent schooling.

Indeed, if there was a watershed moment in modern positive thinking, it would have to be the 1970s advent of self-esteem-based education: a broad-scale social experiment that made lab rats out of millions of American children. At the time, it was theorized that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness (even if the mechanisms required to instill self-worth “temporarily” undercut traditional scholarship). Though back then no one really knew what self-esteem did or didn’t do, the nation’s educational brain trust nonetheless assumed that the more kids had of it, the better.

It followed that almost everything about the scholastic experience was reconfigured to support ego development and positivity about learning and life. To protect students from the ignominy of failure, schools softened criteria so that far fewer children could fail. Grading on a curve became more commonplace, even at the lowest levels; community-based standards replaced national benchmarks. Red ink began disappearing from students’ papers as administrators mandated that teachers make corrections in less “stigmatizing” colors. Guidance counselors championed the cause of “social promotion,” wherein underperforming grade-schoolers — instead of being left back — are passed along to the next level anyway, to keep them with their friends of like age.

There ensued a wholesale celebration of mediocrity: Schools abandoned their honor rolls, lest they bruise the feelings of students who failed to make the cut. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled … and More Miserable Than Ever Before, tells of pizza parties that “used to be only for children who made A’s, but in recent years the school has invited every child who simply passed.” (Twenge also writes of teachers who were discouraged from making corrections that might rob a student of his pride as an “individual speller.”) Banned were schoolyard games that inherently produced winners and losers; there could be no losers in this brave new world of positive vibes.

Amid all this, kids’ shirts and blouses effectively became bulletin boards for a hodge-podge of ribbons, pins and awards that commemorated everything but real achievement. Sometimes, the worse the grades, the more awards a student got, under the theory that in order to make at-risk kids excel, you first had to make them feel optimistic and empowered.

In the decades since self-esteem-based priorities commandeered the American educational agenda, SAT scores, grade inflation, graduation rates, America’s performance in international testing in math and science, and other, less tangible barometers have demonstrated that scholastic greatness is not what self-esteem promotes. Administrators discovered that those “temporary” relaxations in standards had to be institutionalized in a systemic way after students who were shunted on to the next level couldn’t — or wouldn’t? — do the higher-level work, either. Over time, grade inflation trickled all the way up into secondary education. (The number of incoming freshmen who now need remedial courses in order to handle college math and other work borders on alarming — 40%, in one study by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a Washington-state think tank.)

Tellingly, when psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared the academic skills of grade-school students in three Asian nations to those of their U.S. peers, the Asians easily outdid the Americans — but when the same students then were asked to rate their academic prowess, the American kids expressed much higher self-appraisals than their foreign counterparts. In other words, U.S. students gave themselves high marks for lousy work. Stevenson and Stigler saw this skew as the fallout from the backwards emphasis in American classrooms; the Brookings Institution 2006 Brown Center Report on Education also found that nations in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem cannot compete academically with cultures where the emphasis is on learning, period.

Today academic journals brim with revisionist articles that lament the plundering of American schools in the name of positivity. The failure is so complete that self-esteem-based education has been repudiated even by some of its most passionate early voices. (William R. Coulson, for example, during the 1990s became something of a lachrymal troubadour who traversed the American landscape, confessing his error and begging schools to rethink their programs in self-esteem). The overall cynicism is perhaps best captured by the title of Charles Sykes’ provocative 1995 book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write or Add.

The real lesson here, though, isn’t that massive doses of positivity failed to yield brilliance — it’s that the obsession with cultivating optimism and “inner strength” actually proved counterproductive. It is now clear that not only did self-esteem-based educational methodologies not produce excellence, they actually undermined it.

Evidence suggests there have been darker consequences as well. In falsely praising students and shielding them from failure, the educational system was also “shielding” them from the resilience and coping skills that allow the mature adult to process adversity. Raised in the protective cocoon of the school system, often with ambient reinforcement from hovering moms and dads, kids came of age unprepared for an unforgiving Real World.

Most ominously, by creating a climate of entitlement, the self-esteem movement may have unwittingly helped train children to feel good about dubious, self-serving behavior. Twenge finds bitter significance in a 2002 report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles think tank that studies American mores, which revealed that “cheating, stealing and lying by high school students have continued their alarming, decade-long upward spiral.” The Institute noted that almost three-quarters of students admitted to some form of cheating during the preceding year.

So it would seem that if the school system failed to imbue students with genuine self-esteem, it was more successful at fomenting narcissism. In the simplest clinical sense, narcissism can be defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s place in the world. True narcissists need others only for their usefulness to feed their sense of grandiosity. And yet narcissism is a paradoxical affliction, in that narcissists are never truly secure in their bloated sense of self-worth; they crave constant validation. Is it not reasonable that such a condition might result from schooling that touts empty, unsubstantiated self-worth? That’s precisely what psychologist Charles Elliott concludes in his book, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. And Elliott is hardly a lone voice in the wilderness.

“One of the most troubling aspects of self-esteem for its own sake is that you run the risk of producing kids who can’t tolerate challenges to the façade you’ve built up in them,” academic psychologist Roy Baumeister, a leading figure in self-esteem research, told me in a 2004 interview for my book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.

This is no small matter, because narcissism is rampant today, as diagnosed by an assessment tool known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Twenge, who is also a psychologist at San Diego State University, examined the responses of 16,475 college students who’d completed the NPI between 1982 and 2006. She found a 30-percent jump in students who scored “above-average” for narcissism between those two end dates — a period of intense self-esteem-building activity throughout American culture.

And this, in turn, is important because of the growing body of research linking narcissism and aggression. Many of these intricate behavioral relationships have only recently been explored in depth, and one wants to avoid the leaps of faith that marked the early self-esteem movement. Still, the work of such psychology notables as Baumeister, Jennifer Crocker, and Nicholas Emler affirms that the strongest marker for serious antisocial behavior is not “low self-esteem,” as once theorized, but rather ultra-high self-esteem. Indeed, Baumeister’s groundbreaking study, published in 1998 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, revealed that the highest levels of self-worth and/or narcissism are often found in serial killers, drug dealers and other misanthropes.

Baumeister’s collaborator in the study, psychologist Brad Bushman, told Science Daily, “If kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves, and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of self-love could make them dangerous to those around them.”

Corporate Confidence

It bears noting that the self-esteem movement was the result of one of the most colossal logical gaffes on record. Educational psychologists had observed that children who make good grades generally scored a bit higher in self-esteem than poor students. So — they reasoned — all they had to do to transform low achievers into high achievers was “bolt on” some extra self-esteem. What the educators failed to realize, of course, was that they’d inverted causation: The kids with good grades had higher self-esteem because of the grades, not vice versa.

Nonetheless, such lessons are lost on the modern-day champions of positive thinking, who continue to breach the most basic rules of logic and evidence:

The “zero limits” subculture argues that anything is possible through the sheer and single-minded application of will. Lampooning the idea, management consultant Payson Hall writes: “The other day I broke a 12″ x 12″ x 1″ pine board with my bare hand after listening to a 90-minute motivational talk about breaking barriers to achieve goals. [But] the inspirational message, ‘you can do whatever you are committed to,’ troubled me… I suspect the session facilitator would have agreed, particularly if I had produced a 12″ x 12″ x 1″ steel plate.”

Then again, common sense never deterred a PMA guru intent on making his point. Nor did good taste. When parts of San Diego were engulfed in flames in 2007, self-help guru Joe Vitale noted on his blog that the inferno had spared the homes of some of his fellow contributors to The Secret, strongly implying that less fortunate homeowners had brought the cataclysm on themselves by being insufficiently optimistic.

PMA relies greatly on argument-by-example, touting successful, positive people as proof that “you can do it, too!” From an evidentiary standpoint, it’s farcical to cherry-pick successful people, ask them about their state of mind, discover that they feel good about life, then use that “research” in arguing that a positive attitude promotes success. How many unsuccessful people also felt positive — until their lives took an unexpected turn for the worse? Such rationales make as much sense as using Bill Gates and Ted Turner, two noteworthy college dropouts, as evidence for the theory that skipping college leads to untold wealth (or noting that Kobe Bryant has an unusual name and therefore assuming that if you give your child an equally unusual name he’ll end up an NBA superstar).

Far worse is when the gurus of PMA actually use the likes of Gates and Turner as “proof” of “why a college degree isn’t as important as a good attitude.” Gates and Turner beat the odds. The vast majority of college dropouts don’t fare as well, no matter how positive they may be.

A Proven Winner: The Champion Mindset in Sports

Hoping to imbue their ideologies with a mystical panache, the PMA crowd has invented an argot of high-minded nonsense — phrases that can’t truly be defined, let alone quantified or applied to real life. This fusillade of clichés and buzzwords seldom resolves into a cohesive philosophy. I’m watching the Beijing Olympics as I write this, and judging by the commentary from various commentators — all experts in their respective sports — the ideal Olympian is a calm yet fiery competitor who’s both relaxed and driven, patient and hungry; an athlete who stays within himself while knowing how to stretch. This supremely confident (but not overconfident) individual goes into competition with a clear mind as well as intense concentration; perceives the importance of winning but doesn’t worry about losing; knows how to pace himself but always gives 110% — and still has another gear left if he needs it. This is a competitor who leaves it all on the field while also knowing that sometimes it’s best to live to fight another day

I defy anyone to find all of those disparate qualities in the same (sane) person. Clearly, at the end of the day, the so-called champion mindset is whatever works for the champion in question. Which means, in effect, there’s no such thing as a champion mindset, per se. It could be an insufferable braggadocio for one athlete and an aw-shucks modesty for his chief rival. We saw this at Torino, in fact, in the stark contrast between U.S. skiers Bode (the walking ego) Miller and Ted (“I’m just happy to be here”) Ligety.

Similarly, the seminar giants speak of superstar players involved in complex team enterprises as if such players can reach out, Uri Geller-like, and bend dozens of unknown variables into an orderly pattern that leads inexorably to victory. Consider: “He’s a proven winner” or, more specifically, “He knows how to win,” accolades often bestowed on top-tier athletes like, say, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. What does that mean? How could it possibly be so? Does Jeter, standing at short, emit waves of invisible energy that somehow prevent his pitcher from giving up runs? And if Jeter can motivate himself (and/or a teammate) to get that clutch hit in the ninth inning — why does he wait so long? Why not put the game safely out of reach much earlier? Moreover, how does one explain crushing Yankees losses? If the man can simply “conjure” victories at will, then why, in 2002, the year the Yankees swept to a pennant by winning 103 games during the regular season, did Derek Jeter permit the team to get drummed out of the playoffs by the California Angels? Did he suddenly forget how to win when it mattered most?

You Too Can Be President: Delusional Optimism

Today’s most enthusiastic champions of positive thinking — not content with promising mere individual excellence — portray their quest as the rising tide that lifts all boats, supposedly enabling America as a whole to reach new levels of fulfillment. It’s an appealing prospect, albeit an impossible one, because so many competitive pursuits are zero-sum affairs: For each winner, there are multiple losers. There is simply no way for this goulash of competing aspirations to reduce to an orderly society in which there must be management and labor, rich and less rich, winners and also-rans. And the absurdity begins with the cornerstone message of scholastic positive-thinking assemblies everywhere: “You can be president of the Unites States, if you really want to!” Even leaving aside the countless contextual factors that may derail a run for the White House, the simple arithmetic dearth of opportunity — the fact that at any given moment there will be perhaps 10 presidencies available to 150 million or so Americans between age 35 and their death — rules out the dream for just about all who dream it.

A more truthful message would be, “You have much higher odds of being struck by lightning than of ever becoming president of the United States. But relax; there’s virtually no chance that you’ll ever be struck by lightning, either.”

Once again here — as we saw with self-esteem — this isn’t merely silly. There’s a distinct downside to baseless positivity.

In the business world, positive thinking too often expresses itself as an aversion to contingency planning. Surely one of the most vexing aspects of today’s PMA-driven corporate culture is the way it bullies cautious workers into remaining close-mouthed about any red flags they see in a given strategy or undertaking. Frank discussions of risk are construed as evidence of negativity, or even “laying the groundwork for failure.” Employees who voice reasonable concerns may be labeled “gloom-and-doomers” — and hear themselves disparaged during periodic evaluations for “not being team players.” In their Harvard Business Review article, “Delusions of Success” — about the current atmosphere in corporate America — authors Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman are forthright: “We reward optimism and interpret pessimism as disloyalty.”

Ironically, the failure to address risk — what Lovallo and Kahneman call “delusional optimism” — becomes a risk factor in its own right. One is mindful of the memorable quote from Russell Ackoff in his classic book, Management in Small Doses: “The cost of preparing for critical events that do not occur is generally very small in comparison to the cost of being unprepared for those that do.”

Farther along in an ill-fated project, PMA again rears its ugly head in the form of a dogged refusal to acknowledge defeat. As consultant Payson Hall writes, the idea that “any project is possible, given a ‘can do’ attitude” has “proven to be a very expensive and destructive misconception.” Good money gets thrown after bad, because, after all, if you truly believe … how can you fail?

Management consultant Jay Kurtz has a more colorful spin on the same familiar pitfall. “The most dangerous person in corporate America,” Kurtz once told me, “is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He’s always running too fast in the wrong direction.”

Positive Productivity v. Cranky Competence

For the record, studies of the alleged link between positivity and productivity hardly show a straight-line correlation. Though surveys do show that American workers are both highly productive and relatively upbeat, one cannot posit a causal relationship without adjusting for the myriad ambient variables that make American life so much more uplifting to begin with. History’s most rigorous studies, like the bellwether 1985 effort by occupation psychologists Hackett and Guion, cast doubt on even the most basic correlations you’d expect to find — for example, between job satisfaction and low absenteeism. It should be noted that in Japan, the very wellspring of “5S” and other vaunted productivity programs currently overspreading Fortune 500 America, employees aren’t exactly giddy. According to a 2002 study by Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at University of Warwick, UK, just 30% of Japanese workers describe themselves as “happy” on the job.

In the end, there’s scant reliable evidence that a positive attitude has much to do with the result of any objectively measurable enterprise. There is, in fact, modest but intriguing evidence that a positive outlook may be bad for business. Last year a University of Alberta psychology team studied multiple groups of workers assembling printed circuits and deemed the crankier employees superior to their upbeat counterparts. The cheerful people were too invested in their cheerfulness and devoted significant energy to perpetuating it. Their grimacing co-workers simply threw themselves into their work — and did it better: Malcontents made half as many mistakes. (Nor, for that matter, should we dismiss the role played by undue optimism in the recent mortgage/housing meltdown — on the part of lenders and borrowers alike.)

Bodybuilder Mike Mahler, meanwhile, breaks ranks with most of those in the physical-training arts by indicting today’s attitude über alles culture as “a guaranteed way to never achieve your goals… Let’s say that you are broke, overweight, and have no friends. You decide to apply positive thinking… You tell yourself that you are lucky to be you and walk around with a smile on your face. Is this really addressing the problem?” Sagely, Mahler notes that it is discontent that “motivates action and change.” Discontent and — just maybe? — the willingness to accept failure.

Expect Failure … But Keep Trying

Meet Dr. James Hill. He’s director of the Center for Human Nutrition, an NIH-funded agency that Hill oversees from his post as professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado. Hill wondered why most folks who lose weight on fad diets soon regain it all and then some. Working jointly with counterparts at the University of Pittsburgh, Hill’s team has compiled a National Weight Control Registry comprising 4500 individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a full year. After surveying and studying that database, Hill has identified key characteristics that enabled these dieters to achieve their impressive results, and he has distilled them down to a series of tips. Among the first tips is this: Expect failure…but keep trying.

Expect failure? Not something you’d hear on Oprah, eh? Nonetheless, at least among Hill’s dieters, it was the anticipation of failure — combined, yes, with the will to persevere — that paved the way for success.

A mantra like expect failure but keep trying is a perfect example of the commonsensical middle ground that has zero chance of gaining traction in today’s pop culture. Americans are conditioned to suckle at the teat of the categorical, uplifting message. Many of us don’t want to hear “maybe you can do it, and maybe you can’t.” Even if it’s true.

We’d rather cling to the notion that “of course you can do it!” Even if it’s false.

(A rebuttal to Steve Salerno article above - see Steve's counter to this response below)

Optimism is Good for Your Brain

by Mark Robert Waldman & Andrew Newberg, MD

AS SKEPTICAL RESEARCHERS WITH A PENCHANT for thorough and accurate assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of positive thinking and optimism, we are dismayed by Salerno’s apparent lack of comprehension (and exclusion of references to back up his claims) when it comes to the hundreds of studies relating to this important psychological and neurological topic. A brief analysis of the 97 abstracts that are cited if you enter “positive thinking” (let alone the 3553 references to its companion term, optimism) as a key word in the databases of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (www.pubmed.gov) will demonstrate that Salerno has not done his homework.

Hope, optimism, and the belief in a positive future (i.e., faith) is essential for human psychological and neurological functioning, a concept that was first addressed in the 1950s by the psychiatrist Vicktor Frankl, who was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp until the end of World War II. In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he said that the single most important thing that kept a survivor alive was faith. If a prisoner lost faith in the future, he was doomed, because the will to live seldom returned. For Frankl, faith was essential for dealing with all aspects of life: “A weak faith is weakened by predicament and catastrophes whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.”1

Now, faith in an optimistic future may be a placebo, but it’s important to remember that placebos can cure, on the average, 30% of the majority of physical and emotional diseases. Even an irrational belief in a cure that has been proven not to work can significantly boost the body’s immune system when dealing with a deadly disease.2

But what about unrealistic faith or optimism? Recently, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers concluded that “a moderate optimistic illusion” appears to be neurologically essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health.3 They also found that highly optimistic people had greater activation in the same parts of the anterior cingulated, a part of the brain that plays a crucial role in controlling anxiety, depression, and rage, as well as fostering social awareness and compassion.4

Even the medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic stress the importance of optimistic thinking for maintaining optimal health. They found that positive thinking decreases stress, helps you resist catching the common cold, reduces your risk of coronary artery disease, eases breathing if you have certain respiratory diseases, and improves your coping skills during hardships.5 An optimistic attitude specifically reduces the stress-eliciting cortisol levels in your body6, and many other studies have demonstrated how optimism improves behavioral coping in a variety of physical illnesses7, and in a forty year follow-up conducted at Duke University, optimists had increased longevity when compared to pessimistic individuals.8

As reported in the November 2007 issue of Nature, if the human brain did not have a bias toward optimism, we would be prone to increased anxiety and depression.9 However, anxious individuals have a more difficult time suppressing negative thoughts10, and often get caught up in the repetitive process of rumination. This, unfortunately, strengthens the neural circuits that are generating anxiety and embedding the information into long term memory banks.

Optimism is also related to the neurological mechanism known as the placebo effect. If you strongly believe in something — in other words, if you have enough faith in your self — you will stimulate both your immune system and your motivational system into action.11

Skeptics might argue that maintaining an illusory optimism is problematic, but the evidence points in the opposite direction. Researchers at the University of California found that people who have self-enhancing illusions exhibit lower cardiovascular responses to stress, more rapid cardiovascular recovery, and lower baseline cortisol levels.12 In fact, an unrealistically optimistic belief about the future appears to be health protective, even when dealing with a disease as serious as AIDS.13 And in an article just published in March, 2009 issue ofBehavioral Cognitive Psychotherapy14, researchers expected to find qualities ofunrealistic optimism in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder. Instead they found the opposite, and thus the lack of positive thinking contributed to their overestimation of perceived threats in the world.

In another study, optimism added months, and even years to patients suffering from diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.15 It will even increase your resistance to common colds and flu viruses, but it also bias you toward under-estimating the severity of your symptoms.16 Other studies, however, have pointed out that unrealistic optimism adds a decreased perception of risk.17 Optimism does cause people to underestimate their risk of getting divorced and to overestimate their prospects for success in the marketplace, and these are important implications to consider, especially when it comes to health-related concerns. For example, optimistic smokers underestimate their chances of getting ill.18 So the question we must face is this: Are we using our optimistic beliefs to maintain a destructive behavior or belief? If so, then a healthy dollop of reality-testing should be added to your recipe for health.

Optimism is also associated with a less realistic view of the world.19 But then again, so is pessimism.20

Pessimism, however, has few benefits, and it leaves the person more at risk to depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and impaired social functioning.21 In a thirty year longitudinal study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, pessimism was significantly associated with a shorter life-span and poorer mental functioning.22

Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Waldman are authors of How God Changes Your Brain, Why We Believe What We Believe, and Born to Believe. Their research has been published in dozens of peer-reviewed journals and academic texts.

READ Steve Salerno’s response below.


  1. ^ Frankl V. Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington Square Press, 1959.

  2. ^ See Newberg and Waldman, Born to Believe, for an in-depth look at the placebo effect and the power that beliefs have on physiological health.

  3. ^ Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, Phelps EA. Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature. 2007 Nov 1;450(7166):102–5.

  4. ^ Newberg and Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain. Ballantine, 2009.

    1. ^ www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009

      1. Kung S, Rummans TA, Colligan RC, Clark MM, Sloan JA, Novotny PJ, Huntington JL. Association of optimism-pessimism with quality of life in patients with head and neck and thyroid cancers. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Dec;81(12):1545–52.

    2. ^ Evans P, Forte D, Jacobs C, Fredhoi C, Aitchison E, Hucklebridge F, Clow A. Cortisol secretory activity in older people in relation to positive and negative well-being. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Sep-Nov;32(8-10):922–30.

      1. Schlotz W, Schulz P, Hellhammer J, Stone AA, Hellhammer DH. Trait anxiety moderates the impact of performance pressure on salivary cortisol in everyday life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2006 May;31(4):459–72.

      2. Lai JC, Evans PD, Ng SH, Chong AM, Siu OT, Chan CL, Ho SM, Ho RT, Chan P, Chan CC.Optimism, positive affectivity, and salivary cortisol. Br J Health Psychol. 2005 Nov;10(Pt 4):467–84.

    1. ^ Treharne GJ, Lyons AC, Booth DA, Kitas GD. Psychological well-being across 1 year with rheumatoid arthritis: coping resources as buffers of perceived stress. Br J Health Psychol. 2007 Sep;12(Pt 3):323–45.

      1. Steptoe A, Marmo M, Wardle J. Positive affect and psychosocial processes related to health.Br J Psychol. 2007 Jun 27.

      2. Martínez-Correa A, Reyes del Paso GA, García-León A, González-Jareño MI. [Relationship between dispositional optimism/pessimism and stress coping strategies] Psicothema. 2006 Feb;18(1):66–72.

      3. Nes LS, Segerstrom SC. Dispositional optimism and coping: a meta-analytic review. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2006;10(3):235–51.

      4. Schou I, Ekeberg Ø, Ruland CM. The mediating role of appraisal and coping in the relationship between optimism-pessimism and quality of life. Psychooncology. 2005 Sep;14(9):718–27.

  1. ^ Brummett BH, Helms MJ, Dahlstrom WG, Siegler IC. Prediction of all-cause mortality by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Optimism-Pessimism Scale scores: study of a college sample during a 40-year follow-up period. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Dec;81(12):1541–4.

  2. ^ Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, Phelps EA. Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature. 2007 Nov 1;450(7166):102–5.

  3. ^ Gillath O, Bunge SA, Shaver PR, Wendelken C, Mikulincer M. Attachment-style differences in the ability to suppress negative thoughts: exploring the neural correlates. Neuroimage. 2005 Dec;28(4):835–47.

  4. ^ Furukawa TA, Watanabe N, Omori IM, Churchill R. Can pill placebo augment cognitive-behavior therapy for panic disorder? BMC Psychiatry. 2007 Dec 20;7:73. See also: Harrington, A. (Ed.) The Placebo Effect. Harvard University Press, 1999.

  5. ^ Taylor SE, Lerner JS, Sherman DK, Sage RM, McDowell NK. Are self-enhancing cognitions associated with healthy or unhealthy biological profiles? J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Oct;85(4):605–15.

  6. ^ Taylor SE, Kemeny ME, Reed GM, Bower JE, Gruenewald TL. Psychological resources, positive illusions, and health. Am Psychol. 2000 Jan;55(1):99–109.

  7. ^ Inversion of the “unrealistic optimism” bias contributes to overestimation of threat in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Moritz S, Jelinek L. Behav Cogn Psychother. 2009 Mar;37(2):179–93.

  8. ^ Fournier M, De Ridder D, Bensing J. Optimism and adaptation to chronic disease: The role of optimism in relation to self-care options of type 1 diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Br J Health Psychol. 2002 Nov;7(Part 4):409–432.

  9. ^ Cohen S, Alper CM, Doyle WJ, Treanor JJ, Turner RB. Positive emotional style predicts resistance to illness after experimental exposure to rhinovirus or influenza a virus. Psychosom Med. 2006 Nov-Dec;68(6):809–15.

  10. ^ Weinstein ND. Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems. J Behav Med. 1982 Dec;5(4):441–60.

  11. ^ Dillard AJ, McCaul KD, Klein WM. Unrealistic optimism in smokers: implications for smoking myth endorsement and self-protective motivation. J Health Commun. 2006;11 Suppl 1:93–102.

  12. ^ Groot W, van den Brink HM. Optimism, pessimism and the compensating income variation of cardiovascular disease: a two-tiered quality of life stochastic frontier model. Soc Sci Med. 2007 Oct;65(7):1479–89.

  13. ^ Weber H, Vollmann M, Renner B. The spirited, the observant, and the disheartened: social concepts of optimism, realism, and pessimism. J Pers. 2007 Feb;75(1):169–97.

    1. ^ van der Velden PG, Kleber RJ, Fournier M, Grievink L, Drogendijk A, Gersons BP. The association between dispositional optimism and mental health problems among disaster victims and a comparison group: A prospective study. J Affect Disord. 2007 Sep;102(1–3):35–45.

      1. Pinquart M, Fröhlich C, Silbereisen RK. Optimism, pessimism, and change of psychological well-being in cancer patients. Psychol Health Med. 2007 Aug;12(4):421–32.

  1. ^ Maruta T, Colligan RC, Malinchoc M, Offord KP.Optimists vs pessimists: survival rate among medical patients over a 30-year period. Mayo Clin Proc. 2000 Feb;75(2):140-3. Erratum in: Mayo Clin Proc 2000 Mar;75(3):318.

  2. Maruta T, Colligan RC, Malinchoc M, Offord KP. Optimism-pessimism assessed in the 1960s and self-reported health status 30 years later. Mayo Clin Proc. 2002 Aug;77(8):748–53.

Salerno’s Response

SOMETIMES WHEN I RECEIVE CRITICISM I’m left wondering: Did they actually read the piece? This is such a case.

For the record, I have never argued that optimism has no legitimate role in life. I argue that the frenzied overselling of optimism as a blanket prescription for all that ails us is one of the more subtly destructive forces in American culture. Just as scholastic self-esteem gurus were dead-wrong when they led us to believe that so-called “bolt-on” self-esteem automatically yields academic excellence, there’s no question that today’s gurus of optimism have led the nation down the primrose path in declaring that an upbeat attitude is its own foolproof reward. My real quibble, then, is with undue optimism about optimism — “the notion that the riddle of success is more easily solved by attitude than aptitude,” as I wrote near the top of the story. I was primarily indicting the commodification of optimism, and I stand by that assessment. (The gurus are right about one thing, however. Optimism does produce a great deal of wealth: their own.)

Authors Waldman and Newberg, meanwhile, offer us an object lesson in how a few scraps of “emerging science,” as it’s called in those smarmy TV ads for dubious new health-care products, become conventional wisdom. They write, for example, that “medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic stress the importance of optimistic thinking for maintaining optimal health. They found that positive thinking decreases stress, helps you resist catching the common cold, reduces your risk of coronary artery disease, eases breathing if you have certain respiratory diseases, and improves your coping skills during hardships.” That’s one seriously overstated mouthful, because the Mayo researchers “found” no such thing; if you go to the Mayo site, you’ll see that they speculate that positive thinkingmay pay these dividends … and even those tentative declarations are made based on “some” (cherry-picked?) studies. Not coincidentally, this is the same strategy elevated to an art form by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in touting its pet nostrums.

The authors also rely on the common ploy of argument-by-poetry, framing philosophy as truth. This is most clear in the several quotes from Victor Frankl. Much like the transcendent line, “All men are created equal,” the Frankl quotes sound terrific but enjoy no scientific standing.

As for the charge that I haven’t done my homework: Although my piece may not be annotated in strict academic style, I wonder how the authors overlooked the references to the work of Roy Baumeister, Charles Elliott, Charles Sykes, Jean Twenge, etc. — people who clearly have done their homework. But that’s not even the main point. Cleverly, the authors have embraced another staple New Age tactic by inverting the scientific method: telling me it’s my job to prove that optimism is ineffective, when in fact it’s their job, as members of the movement making all these claims, to conclusively demonstrate the efficacy of optimism, hope, PMA, etc.

We still have no way of knowing whether optimistic people actually do better at life or whether they just feel better about the same old crappy life (and therefore are less motivated to change anything). Do they end up like those American students, steeped in self-esteem, who got the worst grades in international testing but had the highest subjective self-assessments?

To paraphrase the famous line from the movie, “Show us the money.”

Overall, the authors represent a blended (and, as I see it, disingenuous) “compromise” between science and spirituality that, on closer inspection, necessarily calls for throwing science out the window. Waldman and Newberg are authors of a new book, How God Changes Your Brain, whose very premise and central concept — God — cannot, by their own admission, be proved. In their book, Waldman and Newberg write, “Having an accurate perception of reality is not one of the brain’s strong points.” And: “The human brain seems to have difficulty separating fantasies from facts.” Fair enough … but is that where a true scientist should leave things? Do we then embrace the fantasies? Isn’t it the scientist’s job to weed out the real from the unreal; to wean people off the unreal; and to encourage people to work within the realm of the real, even if reality is less comfortable than fantasy? Otherwise what is the purpose of skepticism to begin with?

One final point. What I find amusing about the so-called “studies” of the role of mental outlook in health care is this: If a positive attitude is so decisive in health-care outcomes, then why not do a realcontrolled study wherein the control group tries to heal itself through PMA alone? Say, let’s have two groups of grievously ill heart patients, both with 95 percent blockage of the coronary arteries. Group 1 undergoes heart bypass plus blood thinners, etc. Group 2 forgoes all medical intervention and tries to get better just by visualizing the unclogging of their arteries. (If you like, we can even compose Group 1 from a bunch of pessimistic curmudgeons.)

Report back and tell me how it goes.