The Paradox of Positive Thinking

By David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz

On a blustery winter morning, Alan Lock stepped out onto the balcony of his tiny hotel room set below the high cliffs of La Gomera, one of Spain’s lush Canary Islands. For days the rain had come down in hard sheets. Today, just beyond the hotel, the ocean was calm, and the air was warm against his skin. Alan rubbed his eyes and squinted sharply against the muted sunlight.

In his late twenties, Alan has a narrow face punctuated with a reserved grin. His hair is the color of wet sand. Around noon that day, his buddy Matt Boreham, a big guy with dark hair and an adventurous streak, examined the weather conditions and announced it was time to go.

Off the marina’s long pier, the ocean was simmering and growing choppy. The stiffening wind was pushing Gemini’s 24-foot white hull up against the dock. The vessel was built to sustain the ocean’s full blunt force, but its large plywood hull and blocky bulkhead made maneuvering the boat tricky. On board, Alan set his bags down in the cramped cargo compartment and took first position in the rowboat’s cockpit, a command center as narrow as a bathtub. As Matt released the nylon tether and tied off the cleat, Alan stiffened his back and tugged with both arms, raking two long oars across the surface of the water.

It was the first stride in what would be a three-thousand-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Many had attempted, unsuccessfully, to row this route. More people had traveled to outer space than paddled across the Atlantic. It was a dangerous course to take with no motor, no sail, just five-by-seven feet of maneuvering space, a compass, a GPS, gas-powered cooking supplies, and one significant disadvantage that no one in recorded history had dealt with during such a journey: Alan Lock was attempting to become the first registered blind person ever to row one of the world’s oceans.

If you listened to Alan’s fans, you’d think he did it all with the power of positive thinking. The New York Times called him “remarkable.” The Faster Times and the BBC alluded to his extraordinary optimism.

But Alan has a secret. Spend a few minutes with him and you’ll hear him say things like “I always expect the worst” and “I knew I was doomed.” No matter how many people attest to Alan’s remarkable attitude in the face of great adversity, he’ll tell you he’s a pessimist.

Conventional wisdom says that positive thinking after a tragedy leads to better outcomes. When the bottom drops out, having a rosy attitude is better than thinking the worst, right? Yet for more than half a century psychologists have debated this facile version of “the power of positive thinking.”

Those arguing for this perspective assert that positive thinking is nothing less than an antidote to threatening illness and the secret to achieving success in life. Self-help books and inspirational leaders have made many claims, including “You attract your dominant thoughts. Those who speak most of illness have illness, those who speak most of prosperity have it.”

But could success really be that simple? If positive thinking is really such an easy recipe for success, why do so many people fail, and why do so many people suffer?

Years ago, when he joined the Royal Navy, Alan Lock told his recruitment officer, “My worst fear in life is being stuck behind a desk.”

Night watch on the destroyer HMS York failed to employ his extensive training in navigation, but as a junior officer he took these assignments seriously. His shifts were long, and by the end, his body felt heavy. On one such night, he could barely read the print on his navigation charts. Oddly, come morning, he still couldn’t read the charts, and now his eyes ached.

Alan went in for eye testing, and the results that came back were startling. He had been born with a genetic abnormality, a chromosomal mutation that affects a part of the eye related to fine detail, the macula. Over time, macular degeneration gradually drowns the life of cells in the tissue of the retina, the part of the eye that detects luminosity and color. People in their sixties and seventies ordinarily get the disease. Alan was twenty-three.

Alan tried to keep his mind on the positive. The rate of degeneration had slowed. His vision loss might stabilize. As far as his future with the Royal Navy was concerned, there might be positions that didn’t require perfect vision. Yes, he tried to tell himself, everything would be fine.

Two months after his diagnosis, however, Alan followed the sound of a clerical officer’s footsteps into a small room bathed in thin wintery light. At a tiny desk, he was handed a hefty stack of pages. The type was too small to read, just a sea of gray smudge. But he didn’t need to make out any words of this letter of liability to know what it said. He was losing his military career.

People tried to encourage him. So he tried hard to remain positive, to project a brave and hopeful image. He searched hard for reasons to be optimistic. But what he felt wasn’t optimism. “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel a sense of despair,” he says.

This was where Alan found himself when positive thinking failed him. “No matter what people say, there were no positives in losing my sight,” he says.

“You might stretch it and say you appreciate your hearing; you might say, ‘Keep your head up, and think about what all these other blind people do to get by.’ But I’d have given anything to change this.”

But Alan is obviously much more than simply a pessimist, especially given what he would accomplish. He may not believe in the kind of positive thinking so often advocated in popular culture, but he isn’t exactly promoting negative thinking, either. Alan had somehow figured out how to achieve great success without being a “glass-half-full” person, and his secret is surprisingly simple. “Thinking realistically,” he says, “it was the only way to move forward.”

Alan’s claim mirrors the research. Telling yourself, “Everything will be fine” or “It will all be okay” if it probably won’t may feel good temporarily, but ultimately can undermine your ability to take action to make your situation better. For decades, psychologists and public health researchers have been interested in what makes people take steps to head off disasters. Why, for instance, do some people go in for colonoscopies or mammograms while others don’t? After all, these relatively simple procedures could help prevent horrible tragedies. Perhaps the most prominent perspective on this issue is called the Health Belief Model. According to this model, a number of factors predict whether someone will take a risk, but two of the most important are perceived susceptibility and perceived severity. In short, if we believe that a particular action will put us at risk of harm, and that the harm is severe enough, we probably won’t take that action. Likewise, if we think a particular action is likely to protect us from harm, we’ll probably take that action. These two factors have found support in dozens of studies. The Health Belief Model has been shown to predict health-promoting behaviors such as seeking out cancer screening, engaging in safer sex, eating a heart-healthy diet, and getting the flu vaccination; it has even been shown to predict lower levels of criminal behavior. Not surprisingly, one of the major criticisms of this theory is that it’s common sense — and it is.

But what does this mean for positive thinking? In short, people who pay attention to the positives at the expense of noticing the potential for negatives, who believe that everything is (or will be) fine despite their being at real risk, may not take appropriate action to protect themselves. Their lack of belief in their own susceptibility may be dangerous.

Alan Lock’s approach, though not as romantic or seemingly magical as positive thinking, may in fact be more powerful.

Excerpted from Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, by David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz. Now available in paperback.

Available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent.

Top image: La Gomera, from Patrick Muller, via creative commons.

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