It’s taken me 12 years of academic graft to uncover the secrets of happiness, only to discover that the ‘secrets’ are not so secret. The starting point is to understand that happiness is not real, as in it’s not a ‘thing’. Happiness doesn’t have a shape or mass, it’s an emotion. As such, happiness is a mental construct that can only ever come from one place – your thinking.
The bookshelves of the Amazon warehouse groan under titles such as ‘Think and Grow Rich’ (Hill, 1975), ‘Think Yourself Successful’ (Azmandian, 2001) or ‘Think Good Feel Good’ (Stallard, 2002). Indeed, many popular psychologists and self-help authors start with the notion that positive thinking and optimism are key ingredients in happiness.
Ahuvia et al (2015) describe ‘internalism’ as the belief that happiness is produced largely by mental perception and that champions of internalism recognize that one’s experience of the world is constructed subjectively. Thus, intentionally changing one’s evaluations and perceptions can effect real psychological change with Ahuvia et al. arguing that proponents of internalism typically assert that happiness-enhancing mental strategies can be developed through practice. Internalism’s appeal can be seen in the idea that ‘changing one’s mind’ requires very few resources and thus, it is a happiness strategy that is available to people of all backgrounds. Indeed, they point out that clinical psychology is founded, to some extent, on the belief that tolerating and regulating emotional and other internal experiences is possible by engaging in internal processes and that so-called ‘talking therapies’ work by having people reflect upon their own interpretations of events and reframe them in more favourable terms.
Further, internalism is appealing because it appears to be effective – for example, it has been shown that attention (Brefczynski-Lewis, Lutz, Schaefer, Levinson, & Davidson, 2007), compassion and emotional regulation (Lutz, McFarlin, Perlman, Salomons, & Davidson, 2008) can be trained through meditation. Happy people tend to take responsibility for their successes whereas negative people blame luck when things don’t go well (Myers, 1992). This correlates with Wiseman’s research (2004) which suggests that positive thinkers are happier, largely because they see and take more opportunities, managing setbacks with more resilience, seeing them as temporary and external rather than permanent and internal. Additionally, having an upbeat thinking pattern can be a predictor of future success because optimists, believing the future is bright, are able to maintain motivation better than pessimists (Seligman, 2003).
I’m not a big believer in positive thinking, unless it’s backed by positive action, and this is where the dirty word comes into play – effort.
Several investigations have revealed that unhappy individuals are more likely than happy ones to dwell on negative or ambiguous events (e.g., Seligman, 2003, Wiseman, 2004). Such rumination may drain cognitive resources and thus bring to bear a variety of negative consequences, which could further reinforce unhappiness (Seligman, 2003).
In terms of reframing events, research suggests that happy people successfully enhance and maintain their happiness through the use of adaptive strategies in the areas of social comparison, decision making and self-reflection (Liberman et al., 2008; Schwartz et al., 2002).
But in some quarters, ‘positive thinking’ has gone and got itself a bad name. And I tend to agree. I’m not a big believer in positive thinking, unless it’s backed by positive action, and this is where the dirty word comes into play – effort. Some people like the idea of the theory bit but, we know, that when the going gets tough (as it always does, life tends to be a full-on relentless challenge), they slip back into default bog-standard, ‘do what I’ve always done’ mode.
Most personal development books are about your state of mind. The idea is that you change your mental habits (generally towards the rosier variety) and a life of universal abundance unfolds before you. The notion is that that the world is neutral until you apply some thinking to it, and then it bounces off in whatever direction of spin you put on it. Therefore, if you apply some positive spin to your thinking, your life will bounce off into the lush and verdant grass of positivity.
But it’s not an exact science. The real world tends to get in the way. You can apply as much positivity as you like but sometimes life will feel brown and gooey rather than green and lush. Yes, dear reader, the dog-turd of life is out there, just waiting for you to step on it. And step on it you most certainly will.
Which brings me onto the question, how does ‘positive psychology’ differ from ‘positive thinking’? I mean they’re the same thing, right? Well, no, not really, but I appreciate the misunderstanding as it gives me an opportunity to get on my academically high horse.
Psychology researchers don’t generally advocate lying to yourself or promoting uninhibited optimism in all situations. As Martin Seligman says, “you don’t want the pilot who is de-icing the wings of your plane to be an optimist.”
Philosophically, positive thinking begins with the assumption that ‘positive thinking is good for you’. This is often based on personal or anecdotal experience and then extrapolated to other aspects of life as a general prescription for a better life. The positive thinking movement has gathered momentum, culminating in recent years with the massive success of ‘The Secret’, a book which prescribes tapping into the ‘law of attraction’ that manifests good things in your life simply by thinking about them.
Positive psychology focuses on positive aspects of wellbeing including (but not limited to) positive emotions, happiness, hope, optimism and other constructs that relate to the idea of positive thinking. To the uninformed, it would be easy to assume that positive psychology and positive thinking are strongly related. Some might even say, “Finally, science is proving what we have always thought to be true about positive thinking.” But while positive thinking and positive psychology may be related, they are more like third cousins than twin sisters.
Positive psychology begins with scientific inquiry so takes some of those assumptions about positive thinking and says, ‘let’s test them to see where they hold true.’ Positive thinking eschews an optimistic outlook even when one isn’t warranted by the situation, so for example, proponents will suggest “affirmations”, advocating that you should stand in front of the mirror and chant ‘I am a millionaire’ when patently, you’re not. Psychology researchers don’t generally advocate lying to yourself or promoting uninhibited optimism in all situations. As Martin Seligman says, “you don’t want the pilot who is de-icing the wings of your plane to be an optimist.”
Acacia Parks, suggests that the positive psychology brand of optimism is not about being positive all the time but about “entertaining the possibility that things could work out,” something that might best be described as ‘realistic optimism’. In this respect, the benefit of optimism comes from being open to it, not from blindly following it even when it makes no sense to do so.
If you will allow me to give you the British strand of positive thinking – it’s less about donning rose-tinted specs and more about cleaning the shit off your current ones.
But us Brits are mere amateurs when it comes to positive thinking. Let’s finish by crossing the Atlantic to give you positive thinking, US-style. Nobody says it quite as eloquently as Zig Ziglar:
It's safe to say that positive thinking won't let you do "anything”. However, it is even safer to say that positive thinking will let you do "everything" better than negative thinking will. Positive thinking will let you use the ability which you have, and that is awesome. It works this way. You can walk into a dark room, flip on the switch and immediately the room is lighted. Flipping the switch did not generate the electricity; it released the electricity which had been stored. Positive thinking works that way - it releases the abilities which you have.