Does positive thinking really work?

‘Just think positive’. I’m sure you’ve had this advice at some point in your life. But is it good advice? What’s the evidence that thinking positive will really help? These are fascinating questions, which you should ask yourself before attempting to ‘think positive’.

Is thinking positive a good idea?

The answer depends on what you mean by ‘positive thinking’. In every day conversation, we refer to positive thinking as a one-off intervention. For example, a team member complains about something and the supervisor responds, ‘Just think positive’. This is less likely to reap good results, than a more systematic approach to positive thinking. One of my favourite quotes comes from an article by Richard G Moore who says ‘Good cognitive interventions do not always focus primarily on changing specific negative propositions’. He goes on to argue ‘that effective strategies for changing thinking tend to extend beyond a single thought to challenge mental paradigms’.

If you want to shift the way you think, it is more useful to engage in what Chris Agyris calls ‘triple loop learning’. In this approach, you learn to think about the way you think. In other words, you become a self-aware, reflective practitioner. There is good evidence that this style of change works. The field of positive psychology has contributed greatly to our understanding of how to tap into constructive thinking patterns. This is what I refer to when I talk about ‘positive thinking’. Here are some of the practices which have been researched and proven to promote effective positive thinking.

ABC rational emotive model

This model was originally developed by Albert Ellis in the 1960s. It is a foundation of cognitive behavioural therapy. It provides you with a structure for shifting from ‘irrational thinking’ to ‘rational thinking’. In the model, A stands for adverse events. B stands for beliefs. And C stands for consequences. To use the model, you question yourself about what actually happened, what you thought about (or believed about) the situation and the emotional consequences of those beliefs. You then progress to challenge any irrational thoughts which are triggering negative emotional states. To find out more about this model enrol in my positive psychology courses at the Centre for Continuing Education.

Cognitive reframing

To me, cognitive reframing is the end result of most proven change techniques. Put simply, reframing involves changing your picture of reality as you currently know it. When you reframe a thought, you find a new way of seeing things. From a reframing perspective, ‘positive thinking’ involves shifting from a negative or limiting perspective on a situation, to a more positive or enabling interpretation. You can reframe thinking patterns by asking yourself well-structured Socratic questions or making challenge statements. If you’re interested in exploring these techniques enrol in my program Building Confidence with NLP.

Mindful awareness techniques

Mindfulness techniques focus on building awareness of the here and now. They help you to shift what you are paying attention to, which is a useful strategy if you are worrying or becoming stressed. Positive psychologists have shown that people who use mindful awareness techniques experience enhanced senses of well-being and reduced levels of stress.

Guided imagery

Yes, ‘day dreaming’ can be useful. Guided imagery techniques involve imagining a desirable state—such as having achieved a goal. They work at a number of levels. Firstly, the process of establishing a goal, in itself, helps to focus your attention and reset your thinking patterns. More importantly, though, psychologists have demonstrated that creating specific action plans enhances your ability to achieve a goal. For example, Chirila and Constantin (2016) have demonstrated that ‘specifically planned roles lead to better results, compared to those where there is only a distal criteria’. The process of guided imagery works by focussing your attention on the smaller details of how a longer term (distal) goal is going to be actioned. This means that techniques like mental rehearsal or (in NLP language) future pacing, help to create achievable goals.

These are my favourite techniques for helping women shift to positive thinking patterns. Making the shift effectively, though, can be challenging—because of an inherent paradox. It is hard to spot your own distortions, generalisations and deletions, because they’re happening within the mind you use to spot them. To me, this explains why even the most experienced practitioners still benefit from working regularly with a coach. Working with an independent third party helps you to see the way you’re seeing things. You’ll know you have a good coach because they’ll help you to:

  • Challenge limiting thinking patterns during live conversations
  • Learn tools for monitoring and shifting your own internal processing
  • Reframe your perceptual focus
  • Regulate emotions
  • Gain feedback on patterns of thinking that are so ingrained, that you’re not aware of them

Taking all of this into account, then, the next time someone tells you to ‘just think positive’, you’ll know whether or not you want to take that advice.

About the author of this tip sheet

This article is brought to you ‘the glass ceiling smasher’, Eleanor Shakiba. Eleanor specialises in helping women in high intellect fields – such as academia, education, engineering, finance, project management and health – to move beyond three common barriers to women’s success. Eleanor’s qualifications include degrees and diplomas in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.