Positive Psychology ≠ Positive Thinking

I have noted recently the common but unfortunate confusion and conflation, between the application of positive psychology in coaching and mentoring, and the much less rigorous but similar sounding belief in ‘the power of positive thinking’. As the theories and practices from positive psychology have become a central strand in my own research and approach to coaching, and seeing a need for some clarity, I felt it was time to add some clarity on what positive psychology is – and as importantly, what it is not. But we must get this one out of the way first: Positive psychology and the application of it within coaching and mentoring, is nothing to do with ‘the power of positive thinking’ or ‘wishing yourself rich’, or ‘visioning your success’ – or any other elements of what is often associated with the ‘toxic positivity’ of intense hyper performance and ‘just believing in yourself’.

I understand that there is a common word: ‘positive’. Just as nuclear power is not the same as nuclear family but shares a common word. And just as you can support a local community group without being a communist, there are important semantics and distinctions to understand.

The Pull Of Magical Thinking…

Let’s start with the word, positive.

Its origins are from the 14th century French ‘positif’, referring to something settled by agreement, and the word positive became adopted and adapted further in science, sociology and mathematics over hundreds of years. Positivism became associated with the empirical principles of Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century and the logical positivism that emerged in the 1920’s, referred to a reinforcement of the scientific method and a senses and the world of testing and observation. The ‘positive thinking’ movement – with its roots in 20th century mysticism, has a very, very different attachment to logic and reality, and as I will explain, it has no connection to logical positivism and no relation to positive psychology. The story is however an interesting one, worth sharing.

The Power Of Positive Thinking Has A Powerful And Strange History…

Emerging in 1920’s New York, the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians, formed by James B Schafer, was in simple terms, a cult like health and lifestyle collective built around 19th century Rosicrucian mystical principles, popular in post Victorian conversations at the turn of the century. It placed emphasis on the desires and thinking of its followers and so, for example, the Fraternity believed the world’s problems could be solved, if enough positive thoughts were put out into the world. Nice idea, and no harm in that and a belief in thinking in a positive way. The group moved into faith healing and bizarrely even fostered ‘baby Jean’, a child that they claimed would gain eternal life, through the fraternity’s collective positive thoughts. However, as the Fraternity grew, that power of positive thinking became more aligned with the material over spiritual world, and its follower’s desires to gain perfect personal health, long life, business success and easy money. The central and most famous text associated with the group was ‘Think And Grow Rich’ (1937) – authored by Fraternity key player, Napoleon Hill, which he claimed was co-authored with the help of his spirit guide. Like founder Schafer, Hill too was also a controversial character, complete with legal scrapes concerning share dealings, frauds and failed academies and his rather tall stories of helping Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and President Wilson, later denied by any official biographers and historians.

However, Schafer and Hill remained consistent in promoting ‘mind power’ and their work was a precursor to the work of Vincent Peale, and his equally famous work; ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ (1957) – which combined elements of prayer, self-hypnosis and self-belief, with the ‘Law of Attraction’; an idea first promoted by the New Thought movements of the 1890’s. Combining The Law of Attraction and the belief in positive thinking, ‘The Secret’ (Byrne, 2006), fused modern pseudo-science about energies and frequencies to these old ideas, but with the same basic notion, that if we just wished something hard enough, success and happiness would happen. All three books, of Hill, Peale and Byrne have sold millions and still have an audience so, where is the problem?

Firstly, the un-restrained hyperbole of ‘positive thinking’ no matter how often it is packaged, is obviously appealing, as it promotes a wishful belief and offers easy quick solutions to gain something. So, of course it is attractive to any of us! The problem is the inconvenient truth, that wishing, and thinking is totally passive and the reality is that any coaching, learning, personal growth or adult development, requires us to be active. The need for rational action, is an essential ingredient in developmental change pointed out from across the spectrum; from psychotherapists, such as Albert Ellis (1962), Aaron Beck (1975) Steven Hayes (1982) and James Prochaska (1994) – to social psychologists such as Johnathan Haidt (2012) and Jordan Peterson (2018), and from management gurus, from Drucker (2001) to Jim Collins (2001) to Seth Godin (2007). The rather boring insight, shared across all this work, from different views, is that any change (in a person, relationship, or business) – requires moving beyond ‘thinking’ and ‘visioning’ – and adding not just action but learning to accept of the discomfort, the time, and the habitual repetition that is inevitably required. None of which is ever mentioned in the ‘think yourself rich’ type success texts and beliefs. Genuine personal change, as every mentor, coach, teacher and manager knows, is about more than promoting ‘positive thoughts’, which is at best reckless and at worse, totally self-defeating. Goals and aims are fine and useful, but to these we need to add knowing oneself and our actions actions and preparing ourselves for the storms and setback we face on our journeys. As the John Shed poem says; ‘A ship is safe in harbour, but that is not what it is build for’. Likewise, as rational adults, we grow to know that we all face rough weather and we need more than just ‘thinking positively’ to make ourselves safe for the challenges ahead.

Secondly, relying on ‘self-belief’ and optimistic wishing can be very damaging to our sense of ourselves, being in touch with reality and creating good mental well-being. The prominent psychiatrist RC Murphy saw work of Peale as reliant on auto suggestion, not any true self-knowledge and the classic psychologist Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, pointed out that an obsessive focus on positive thinking, could in fact be highly damaging to mental health and actually make it more difficult to create positive behavioural change. The Secret and its re-hashing of positive thinking and the Law of Attraction was described by one commentator in The Observer, as ‘a crutch of delusional self-belief’. The term ‘toxic positivity’ is now used to describe these quasi-mystical ‘wishing’ beliefs, which concentrate the believer on material wants, avoid any harder thinking, contemplation, reality or strengths, or any actions that may be challenging or uncomfortable. As Prochaska explains in ‘Changing for Good’ (1994) ‘Any change that is worth anything, will cost something dearer than money’ (p130). Absolutely…

Nobody I know who has studied positive psychology in any depth, or applies it within well considered coaching or mentoring, would ever suggest that a journey of genuine change and development requires simple ‘thinking positively’. Positive Psychology, requires a much deeper engagement with who we are, with our engagement and purpose, and a belief that we can change and take action. To learn more about how we can apply Positive Psychology within coaching, click here to read Coaching Positively #1: Applying Positive Psychology.

And for more on this topic, see Coaching Positively #2: The Value of Strengths, Coaching Positively #3: The Value of Habits, and Coaching Positively #4: A Programme Explained.

For more about how positive psychology and coaching programmes, can help you, your team or your business, contact Andrew Armour Benchstone Limited.

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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