Beyond Positive or Negative Thinking

Nasser Salehinia, PhD| June 14th, 2021

Positive thinking is a philosophy that’s been popular for decades by purveyors of positivism such a Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and the Christian priest and Vincent Peale who championed the idea that we all have, at our conscious disposal, the means to transform ourselves into walking, breathing success machines.

Those seduced into the promise of a quick fix gobble it up. But brain science must also be taken into consideration.

Essentially, our emotions are deeply rooted in the way our brains work. There is a scientific basis for many of our thoughts and emotional responses which then shape our behaviors and interactions with ourselves, people around us and the world. Every one of these actually alters neural pathways in the brain, which then alters the inner working of the brain.

But do these neural pathways, which need to change for any meaningful and lasting improvement in our thoughts, emotions and behavior do actually change for the better with positive thinking? In other words, can we improve ourselves, achieve our goals, and live more meaningful and fulfilling lives through positive philosophy?

Not exactly!

Why Do We Try to Think Positively?

When a rush of negative thoughts fill our minds, we feel anxious and uncomfortable. Since no one likes those feelings, we try to replace our negative thoughts with positive ones hoping to return to feeling calm and stable once again.

Let’s look at this approach from two perspectives: the scientific and the philosophical.

From a scientific perspective, our thoughts and emotions are produced by the inner working of the brain. The Amygdala, a key part of our emotional brain, or the Limbic brain, is in charge of producing our emotions which influence how we think. The Amygdala’s mission is to alert us of any possibility of physical or emotional danger so we can protect ourselves in a timely manner. To do its job, it uses a significant part of its capacity to constantly look for any signs of danger within and outside of us.

“Our thoughts and emotions are produced by the
inner working of the brain.”

Amygdala’s inherent activity makes the brain anxious. Scientifically this known as the brain’s negativity bias. An anxious brain naturally produces negative emotions and thoughts, and regardless of how hard we try, we cannot fight, change or fool this negativity bias since it supports the brain’s core objective: protecting our survival.

Let us now consider the philosophical side

The philosophy of positive thinking means seeing a certain thing and yet denying what we have seen. It means repressing certain thoughts and emotions, denying the facts and deceiving ourselves by creating make-believe about what is not

Forcing ourselves to think positively is simply denying the reality of existence; that life is a process of constant change which means constant ups and downs; constant positive and negative.

Deceiving ourselves into seeing only half-truth is far more harmful than seeing the whole truth because it disempowers us to deal with reality and develop strategies and resilience to live productively in a constantly changing world.

Am I against positive philosophy? Yes, because I am also against negative philosophy. I am against both because both choose only half the fact, and both try to ignore the other half.

What I am for is developing skills that allow us to release useless thoughts and emotions from their source, the brain. We can then create an adaptive mindset which is neither positive nor negative; one that asks an important question: is this line of thinking, without the labels of positive or negative, moving me toward or away from reaching my desired destination. This line of inquiry will keep us focused on how to reach our intended results, and will allow us to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Today brain science provides us with the knowledge and tools to achieve that kind of mindset.