If you bought, say, a smartphone that performed much worse than advertised, you might avoid that manufacturer in the future. But the doctrine of positive thinking that underpins modern self-help rests on circular logic: when a given technique fails, the implication goes, it’s because you weren’t thinking positively enough—and so you need positive thinking even more. In reality, psychological research increasingly suggests that repeating “affirmations” makes people with low self-esteem feel worse; that visualizing your ambitions can make you less motivated to achieve them; that goal setting can backfire; and that emotions can’t be controlled through sheer force of will. But the temptation to just try even harder can be hard to resist. “The key to success,” argues the best-selling motivational writer Brian Tracy, “is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear.”
Related to my post on “negative thinking” from last week, is this post from The Daily Beast about how we should rethink making New Year’s Resolutions. Basically, what I’m seeing here is that making big lofty (or vague) resolutions like, “being healthier and losing weight” or “quit smoking” often don’t pan out. But things like, “lose five pounds,” or “smoke one pack a week instead of two”—reasonable!