Positive Thinking: Questioning Its Power

The power of positive thinking movement is the cornerstone upon which countless American self-help empires have been built. But does it really have the power it so often promises?

"You will attract everything that you require. If it's money you need you will attract it. If it's people you need you'll attract it. You've got to pay attention to what you're attracted to, because as you hold images of what you want, you're going to be attracted to things and they're going to be attracted to you. But it literally moves into physical reality with and through you. And it does that by law." -Bob Proctor/Rhonda Byrne, "The Secret"

That's a pretty powerful statement. It resonates emotionally, even if it doesn't have a shred of evidentiary support. "The Secret" promises a universe that will deliver on the desires of those who occupy it, so long as they stay optimistic, determined, and of course, follow the simple steps laid out in its pages.

The power of positive thinking movement is the cornerstone upon which countless American self-help empires have been built. But does it really have the power it so often promises? Dr. James Coyne, director of the Behavioral Oncology Program at UPenn is skeptical. So am I.

To learn more, watch the video above and/or read the transcript below. And don't forget to sound off by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. The power of positive thinking movement has a stranglehold on American society. Self-help gurus like Tony Robbins and Eckhart Tolle have made quite a living peddling its promises to an audience desperate to find the formula for success, prosperity, and health. And media moguls are eager to eat it up, knowing what a boost in ratings it can offer. Money maker for its architects? Sure. Scientific, effective, worth its weight in book prices and seminar fees? Not at all. In fact, the so-called power of positive thinking movement is not just lacking in the evidence department, it can actually be counterproductive. But don't take it from me. Listen to what Dr. James Coyne, director of the Behavioral Oncology Program at UPenn has to say.

JAMES COYNE: I think that the idea that if you just think good thoughts you'll get wealthy, well, I think in a lot of cases that's not going to work and the paradox to that is you're just going to make yourself miserable. If you weren't committed to that goal then you wouldn't get into a struggle you're going to lose.

CSM: I hope somebody tells that to Russell Simmons, whose recent book "Super Rich: A Guide To Having It All" reeks of self-help quackery. But Dr. Coyne doesn't study attitudes and wealth. He studies cancer. And that's an example of when the power of positive thinking movement can really hurt somebody, especially somebody who's dying.

JC: I'm part-time in the Netherlands besides here at the University of Pennsylvania, and there was an Olympic swimmer there and he had cancer and he underwent treatment and he went back and won a number of gold medals. And everybody wanted Maarten van der Weijden to become the next Lance Armstrong, a Dutch Lance Armstrong. He said, "Wait a minute, I struggle to win gold models, and you can call me a fighter that way, but I didn't struggle or fight to beat my cancer. I just went along with what the doctors said, and I don't want to be called Lance Armstrong. I don't want to give the impression that it's a matter of how you fight; it's just a matter of how you endure."

CSM: And Dr. Coyne knows this well. He and his colleagues gave a large sample of patients with cancer a quality of life assessment, including a scale for emotional well-being. Other than the large sample size, what made this study stand out is that the researchers knew exactly what kind of cancer they were dealing with, and, based on the severity of the cancer, that many of the participants were going to die.

JC: We hoped we'd be able to demonstrate that emotional well-being predicted outcome. And the prevailing idea was that patients who were more positive should live longer, and we couldn't find that. There was absolutely no evidence of that.

CSM: Time and time again, this "think well, be well" mentality is debunked in the scientific literature. Yet, this pseudoscientific, pseudointellectual, makes-me-feel-all-warm-and-fuzzy-until-somebody-gets-hurt theme persists in American culture. How would this make you feel if you were dying of cancer? If you were doing everything the doctors asked you to do, putting on a brave face, and staying as positive as humanly possible, but you just kept getting sicker and sicker?

JC: I get particularly concerned when the message "think positive" gets to be a prescription, and it's not a prescription that everyone can fill. I think some people are better off going out with a roar, going out with negativity, and if that's what suits their personality, so be it. It may not affect their health outcomes, but it may affect their quality of life in terms of they're doing what they feel they need to do, they're being who they think they are, and that's important.

CSM: And it turns out that a lot of people detect illnesses early because they are, dare I say it, pessimistic. Sometimes neuroses like anxiety will help a person notice that he or she is sick sooner, instead of shrugging off and smiling through that lump, headache, or funny-looking mole.

JC: There doesn't seem to be any evidence that optimism of thinking positive thoughts extends life, even if people feel better feeling that way.

CSM: Alright everyone, you know the drill. Sound off on Facebook, Twitter, or leave your comments right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

Editor's Note: Although Eckhart Tolle does not overtly promulgate the power of positive thinking movement in his teachings, he was included in this video discussion as an example of the lack of scientific evidence within the self-help movement.

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