Athletes swear by it, entrepreneurs use it to try and turn their dreams into reality and even Oprah is a big fan – but the real questions is – does positive visualisation really work?
For years we have been told about the miraculous benefits of using positive thinking to reach our goals. It has become a sworn-by technique used by thousands to try and reach success, a tried-and-tested method used by the likes of heptathlete Jessica Ennis and self-made billionaires like Richard Branson – who claims to have made it to the top by literally willing himself to achieve the success he craved.
However a controversial new book by bestselling British author and journalist Oliver Burkeman, named The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, claims that positive thinking doesn’t actually work.
According to Burkeman, who writes for the Guardian, including the weekly column ‘This Column Will Change Your Life, living by the belief that positive affirmations will transform our lives could actually be setting us up for failure. His new book aims to debunk the myth of positive thinking as he believes that true happiness can only be achieved if we can learn to love failure instead of fearing it.
He also explores the notion that, when we believe good things will come solely from thinking well, is that this type of “very brittle and fragile kind of approach to happiness” is what leaves you much less resilient and able to cope when things go wrong.
In opposition of the boundless other self-help books and psychology articles that say using positive thinking techniques help to bring our dreams closer to us, Burkeman believes that our constant efforts to eliminate pessimistic thoughts could in fact be setting us up to feel emotions which end up creating more negativity – such as insecurity, sadness or acute feelings of failure.
He explained: “For some years I’d been writing my column in the Guardian, ‘This Column Will Change Your Life,’ which is a tongue-in-cheek look at what works and what doesn’t in self-help and popular psychology.
“Gradually I began to see that there was one major thing that many of the failed approaches to happiness had in common: positive thinking. By that I mean, specifically, the idea that you can make yourself happy or successful by sheer force of will – by deciding only to think happy thoughts, or deciding that your dreams will come true.
“What these entire approaches share is the notion that negative feelings and situations should be ignored or erased. Ultimately, that’s counterproductive – it makes things worse. Deciding to be optimistic all the time, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, is actually a rather stressful way to live.”
In some ways I can’t help but feel disappointed by Oliver’s argument. Having always been optimistic about the power of positivity – and also vaguely anxious about my upcoming driving test – I thought that perhaps I could use some visualisation techniques to try and boost my chances of passing first time.
Intrigued by Oliver’s claims, I revisited my bookshelf to find a worn-out book that my father gave me a few years back named ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ by Dr Norman Vincent Peale. It was a book that, if I’m honest, I skimmed when I was 19, thought about for a day or two – and then swiftly forgotten. However after having a recent conversation with a friend of mine who swears that her luck has improved by tenfold by using positive affirmations – I decided to buff up on the subject by trying out some research for myself.
After having a thorough read through Dr Peale’s original book, which sold more than 22 million copies after being first published in 1952, I noticed upon reading that there is no room for being cynical. It says that for the practice to truly work, you mustn’t allow negative thoughts to enter into your mind or allow yourself to be disbelieving. Having suffered a day of what had already seemed like one disaster after the other, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Another thing that got to me was that it says that everything negative that occurs is often brought on – or even yearned for – by ourselves. I’ll admit, I found it profoundly difficult to believe the fact that I would have possibly wanted to get soaked in the rain, miss the train and then lose my favourite necklace on one day. But was it simply my pessimism, or cynicism, that was preventing the techniques from working?
Oliver said: “With all these techniques, the point is not that they could never work, but that they’re sufficiently dubious to be little use as a general approach to life. Some sports psychologists, for example, are convinced that positive visualisation works.
“Meanwhile, a study a few years ago showed that people who were rendered thirsty and then asked to visualise drinking a refreshing glass of water appeared to undergo a reduction in motivation, not an increase. It was as if they were less motivated to achieve their goal in reality because they’d already convinced themselves they’d achieved it on an imaginary level.
“One study mentioned in my book also showed that people with low self-esteem who repeat self-help ‘affirmations’ to themselves end up feeling worse, perhaps because the affirmations prompt them to generate counter-arguments. They say to themselves ‘I am a lovable person!’ and all their mind does is think of reasons why they’re not lovable.”
Although I found myself agreeing with his counter arguments theory, for some reason, something inside me still wanted to believe that there was something in the whole positive visualisation thing. After all, if it is being used by athletes, professional golfers and top entrepreneurs, then surely there must be something in it?
Dr Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, has also recently unveiled the results of an experiment, in which he discovered that just thinking about exercise can increase the strength of your muscles.
What was most astonishing about the experiment was the fact that the volunteers who carried out virtual workouts in their heads, as compared to the volunteers who carried out physical workouts, still managed to increase their muscle strength by 30 per cent by the power of their minds alone.
With this in mind, I reverted back to reading my old Positive Thinking book, and I found it insightful that it discusses how having one bad thing happen can have a domino effect on your life, simply because the first event often throws you into a negative mind frame. I’m sure we can all relate to those awful days where there seems to be an endless stream of bad things happening. It made me wonder if things could have turned out differently had I simply tried to be a bit more optimistic.
When I asked Oliver what he thought about this and whether he believed that positive thinking could only set us up for failure in the long run, he said: “The simple truth is that life is full of ups and downs. Bad stuff happens. That in itself needn’t be a catastrophe.
“But when you adopt a philosophy of happiness that is based on just trying not to think about those bad things, it’s inevitable that they will destabilise you much more when they do occur. The ‘negative path to happiness’ which I write about in The Antidote is the suggestion that we might do better to find ways to coexist with those bad things, to be open to them and to prepare for them.
“The key is in learning to find ways to coexist with both sides of the human emotional repertoire, the bad as well as the good. By having a friendlier attitude to uncertainty, insecurity and sadness in this way, we can chart a course to a far more fulfilling life than mere positive thinking could ever achieve.”
I’m not sure what to think now I’ve heard Burkeman’s argument, however there’s still that little bit inside me that thinks using positive affirmations is the best way to stay upbeat and uplifted when we so badly want to achieve something. I fear that by not a least trying to give it ago, it could prevent a flurry of possibilities from happening.
Although I’ll definitely start to try and embrace my failures and be less of a perfectionist, I’ll still picturing me walking out of that car on the day of my driving test, elated that I’ve been given a pass.
There are some things that are bound to be beyond our control, so I think the key is just to go with the flow and accept that some things don’t always work out the way we want them to. Better to always look on the bright side.