Is Positive Thinking Counterproductive?

by Ivan on June 14, 2011

What’s the real difference between Positive Action and Positive Thinking? More important, which one should you focus on? I’ve believed in Positive Thinking until I took a second look at the results. It’s easy to deceive yourself into assuming that because you’re ‘Thinking Positive’ you’re heading in the right direction. Are you? Or are you simply thinking about it? Let’s look at an example.

Positive Action v Positive Thinking

Positive Action v Positive Thinking

Why Positive Thinking can be counterproductive?

I’m 45. I’m 5’8’.

It doesn’t matter how much Positive Thinking I do, I will NEVER play professional basketball. I can be super positive all year long… and I’ll never get picked. Too old, too small.

Here’s another example.

I can use Positive Thinking tactics to think that I will write a NY Times bestseller but… it will never happen unless I start to do the actual writing.

And this is where Positive Action comes in.

What is Positive Action?

Positive Action is transforming abstract Positive Thinking into concrete results.

In other words you:

  1. Identify what you want to achieve (Set Goals)
  2. Encourage yourself to do it (Positive Thinking)
  3. Develop a plan to achieve this (Positive Action)

Most of us – including me – fall into the trap of being satisfied with Positive Thinking.

It ‘feels’ good to be positive. And as it feels like you’re heading in the right direction, it’s tempting to think positive.

But it can be a trap.

Why Positive Thinking can be self-destructive?

In a study published in 2009, University of Waterloo psychologist Joanne Wood found that for:

participants with high self-esteem, repeating a positive affirmation (“I am a lovable person”) multiple times indeed resulted in slightly better moods right afterward.


among those with low self-esteem, the positive affirmations backfired, resulting in worse moods.

Wood and her colleagues conjectured that statements… in the minds of individuals with low self-esteem, serving only to remind them of how often they have fallen short of their life goals.

Making The Shift To Positive Action

Maybe this is down to culture, or education, or gender, or religion… or a combination. By itself, Positive Thinking, doesn’t directly help you to achieve something. How could it? You’re just thinking about things from a positive angle, right?

So here’s the question.

How do you make the shift from Positive Thinking to Positive Action?

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Suzanne Vara June 16, 2011 at 4:34 am


Ok I have some thoughts here. Ok wait, 3. First I love this article. Second regarding positive thinking there are times when positive thinking leads you to positive action. I am 5’1 and will never play in the WNBA. I also cannot catch a ball with a mitt (sad I know) so I will never be a softball player. However, through positive thinking which led to positive action, I, while enhancing my son’s swimming lessons learned how to be a better swimmer. I actually rocked the backstroke yesterday across the pool with ease. =-). So while I agree that some things we can think positively and it never will come, there are others than can.

Regarding positive action, to me, it has to come from positive thinking. If I do not think that I can write a book that will be  a NYT Bestseller then I would never take that into being a positive action and actually write the book.

I am the eternal optimist sometimes. I works for me I suppose but annoys people sometimes. Not everything can be turned into lemonade (so they say).

Ivan June 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

Hi Suzanne,

…Regarding positive action, to me, it has to come from positive thinking. If I do not think that I can write a book that will be a NYT Bestseller then I would never take that into being a positive action and actually write the book.

Yes, that’s a good way of looking at it.

I was listening to a podcast last night on Plato and they mentioned the analogy of the Charioteer and the Horse, which represented intellect and emotion.

For me, positive thinking (Charioteer) is that part that decides what one needs to do; the trick is to guide the horse to get busy and make it happen.

And, of course, get back on when you get knocked off 


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