Does Positive Thinking Work?

Readers of my first book email me from all over the world, usually to ask questions. The most common question I've gotten has been about positive thinking. People say things like, "I try to think positive, but I am overwhelmed by negativity." Many people have concluded that either positive thinking doesn't work, or they are somehow not trying hard enough.

The fact is, positive thinking can be a very effective tool in the right circumstances, but it has to be done the right way and at the right time. But before I get into that, I want to get off on the right foot and say it is best to consider positive thinking as self-coaching. It's a more accurate description of what you're trying to do, and it's the name researchers use when they try to determine if self-coaching makes any difference. And they've discovered it does.

For example, in a study of Olympic gymnasts, they found that those who made the U.S. men's gymnastics team employed more self-coaching than those who weren't able to qualify.

In a different study, "positive self-talk" made it easier for a gymnast to do well. Researcher Susan Jackson did a study on twenty-eight elite athletes from seven different sports. She found that confidence, ability to focus, and level of motivation were key factors in their ability to consistently succeed. Self-coaching can enhance those key factors.

Self-coaching, which many people call positive thinking, can indeed make a difference. But to make it work for you, apply the following principles:

1. Coach toward a purpose. The first step in self-coaching is to make sure you know what you're coaching toward. Clearly define your purpose. Make it simple. Don't complicate it and don't attempt several purposes at once. Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." That's funny because you can't take a fork in the road. You can't go two directions at once. Choose one and then coach yourself toward it.

Championship race-walker Curt Clausen starts preparing for competitions by saying, "I want to win this race." Does that seem too basic? Setting your goal clearly in your mind is a first step that should not be overlooked. Clausen then makes a detailed plan — what he's going to do and when. He talks to himself about what he'll do if this or that happens. He makes a plan for how he will achieve his purpose. And he runs that plan through his head over and over during the race. He is self-coaching toward a purpose — not just trying to feel good or look positive. He's trying to accomplish something and his self-coaching is toward that end. That is the first and most important key of "positive thinking." It's got to be toward a goal.

2. Give yourself commands. Literally tell yourself what to do. Step back from the situation and think about what you need to do, and tell yourself, for example, "Okay, relax. Take a deep breath. Good. Now just walk over there and ask the question. Keep your face relaxed, etc."

Kayak champion Kathy Ann Colin and her pair teammate, Tamara Jenkins, were having trouble balancing. Their warm-up before the qualifying competition for the 2000 Olympics was awful. Colin had an additional distraction because her parents had been robbed at the airport when they flew in. Colin and Jenkins both felt scattered and nervous. But before the race, Colin turned to Jenkins and said, "We can do this. Focus and relax and don't worry about anything else." It worked.

Coach yourself with commands — but not necessarily in a commanding or domineering way. Do it like a hypnotist giving commands: Gentle and confident.

And use the right tone of voice (you have a tone of voice inside your head) because even if you are encouraging yourself or giving yourself advice, your own internal voice can rub you the wrong way and ruin the good effect. Don't yell angrily at yourself unless that creates the effect you want. Simply changing your own tone when you talk to yourself can make your coaching more effective.

I was lying in bed this morning when the alarm went off. I felt like sleeping some more, so I hit the snooze button. When it went off again, I still felt tired, but this time I said to myself, "I'm going to count to ten, and when I reach ten, my eyes will open, and I'll feel awake and rested.

I counted to three and said the same thing again. Up to seven, and said it again. Eight, nine, ten. And I opened my eyes and said to myself, "I feel rested and awake." And I did.

Simple suggestion like that can make a big difference. I know this is a trivial example, but it can be used in lots of different ways and it makes a difference. We need to lead our minds more than we do. We can create our experience more than we do.

3. Give yourself advice. Look at your circumstance the way you might see it if a friend of yours was in your situation. And then advise yourself the way you would advise your friend. "It's not as bad as it seems. You'll get through this. You can handle it."

Be kind and gentle. Reassure yourself and use your good common sense. Give yourself your best advice and then follow it.

4. Give yourself encouragement. It makes a difference to tell yourself, "I can do it." That's all encouragement is: The basic message "you can do it." This is what people call "belief in yourself." It's nothing more than coaching yourself, encouraging yourself, saying to yourself, "I can do it." Talk to yourself in a confident and reassuring way. Encourage yourself without overstating your case or trying to feel enthusiastic. Talk to yourself genuinely and sincerely, like you would talk to your best friend, and give yourself some encouragement.

5. Give yourself reasons. Remind yourself of the reasons why you can overcome this obstacle. Tell yourself about your past successes. Remind yourself of your strengths. Also, remind yourself of why you really want it. Think up new reasons. Good reasons will motivate you and strengthen your determination.

6. Aim for your favorite positive emotion. I have often wanted to have a good attitude, so when I was dealing with others — co-workers, my neighbors, the clerk at the store, my wife — I tried to have a positive attitude. I tried to be cheerful and enthusiastic.

But over the years I have found something better. I didn't like the forced, phony quality of my effort to be cheerful. What I like better is love. Love is a very "positive attitude" and it changes my state to aim for that, rather than just changing my external expression. And it takes my attention away from me and puts it out there on the other person. I have a better effect on the world. Try it and you'll see what I mean.

Often my cheerfulness annoyed people. Sometimes it was envy, I think. Sometimes it was just the difference between how they felt and how it looked like I felt. But my love, my feelings of kindness, never annoys people. It is simply the difference of what I'm aiming for. Am I aiming to be a positive person? Am I aiming for being cheerful? Or am I aiming for letting the other person feel loved? Or just loving them? It feels different, both to me and to the other person.

Remember, cheerfulness and enthusiasm are not the only positive emotions. My two favorite positive emotions are determination and love. In my opinion, these are much higher states than cheerfulness or enthusiasm, and you'll never slip into a phony show of positivity aiming at these. Please remember this. I believe this is the most common mistake people make when they're trying to "be more positive." They aim for cheerfulness. What they end up with is the show of positivity and a negative feeling of phoniness.

Aim for love instead. Or gratitude or feeling relaxed or determined. These are easier to attain and worth more than cheerfulness.

7. Try anti-negativity. You can read more about this principle here. It's about getting rid of negative, self-defeating thinking. It is attacking and finding fault in your pessimistic assumptions. When you're in a negative mood, this is probably the easiest and most natural way to be more "positive."

Instead of trying to pretend you feel positive or somehow drum up a positive feeling, you attack your negative thoughts with as much venom as you like. It works. Sometimes positive thinking is too much of a step. Use anti-negativity to get yourself up to neutral before attempting anything positive.

8. Keep it simple. Keep your sentences short, to the point, and directed to action or bearing.

9. Reframe "negative" events. This is probably what most people think of as "positive thinking." Reframing is looking at a circumstance in a different way deliberately. If you change the way you think about it, you can change the way you feel about it, and that usually helps you deal with it more effectively. Learn more about reframing here.

10. Use visualization. There are many different ways to use visualization as positive thinking or self-coaching. And it has many possibilities beyond those. It's too big a subject to cover here, but you can read more about visualization here.

11. Repeat what works.

You may have noticed that good coaches develop "sayings." They have certain things that they say often. As you coach yourself, you will often coach yourself the same way on the same activity over and over, and you'll develop short, pithy sayings that capture a useful meaning. Use those. Once you get very good at coaching yourself, you can do a whole coaching session with one sentence and be back to the activity with a good attitude.

Have you ever read the book or seen the movie, Alive? It is the true story of a plane crash. Not all the people survived. The ones who successfully endured the incredible seventy-one day ordeal in the Andes mountains developed slogans they repeated often, giving them the determination to keep trying. "The loser stays," meaning the weak would die. "A man never dies who fights." "We've beaten the cold." And the most common, "To the west is Chile."

If you have ever thought positive thinking was bunk, try using these ideas and see if it changes your mind. I think you'll find that when it's done with skill, positive thinking can be very effective. It can improve not only the way you feel, but how effective you are at accomplishing your goals and dealing with people.

This article was excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan. Buy it now here.

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