Peace & Joy
Peace & Joy

Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is a deceptively simple concept with profound implications.

Peace and joy: During difficult life situations, when we are in pain and misery, can positive thinking steer us towards peace and joy? Yes.

Sports psychology: Is positive thinking employed by marathon runners, rifle shooters and tennis players? Yes. In fact, positive thinking is what separates the champions from the elite.

Medicine: Is positive thinking important for recovery from medical ailments? Yes.

Spiritual: Is positive thinking a powerful technique in spiritual journeys? Yes.

Let us explore each of these themes in detail.

The World Is A Reflection of Ourselves

The world we see is a reflection of ourselves. I understand this statement as follows. When we ourselves are in pain and misery, our attention is drawn to images of pain and misery like animal cruelty, poverty and disease. When we are full of peace and joy (for example, when we fall in love), our attention is drawn to images of lovers in bliss, birds, trees, lakes, happy children and smiles all around. Thus the world we see is a reflection of our internal state of mind.

What is Positive Thinking? During times of pain and misery, many of us have a natural tendency to see the world negatively. The world includes ourselves, our circumstances and others. What is negativity? It is exemplified by finding fault with ourselves (guilt), finding fault with our circumstances and finding fault with others (blame). At the same time, our internal state of mind is disturbed, characterized by some combination of emotions like anger, anxiety, fear, hatred, ill will, depression and so on. During such times, is it possible for us to steer our state of mind towards peace and joy by consciously seeing the world (ourselves, our circumstances and others) positively? The answer is a resounding Yes! Such exercises are collectively called 'positive thinking'. In fact, we can train ourselves to be positive in every possible situation, thereby maintaining peace and joy at all times! Can positive thinking influence us physically? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes! By the time you finish reading this article, you will see how.

Preparations: To apply positive thinking strategies, we must first inculcate the belief that we have the ability to change our state of mind. In other words, we are not merely machines whose emotional responses to stimuli are pre-programmed and unchangeable. The modern word neuroplasticity captures this concept. Next, we need faith in positive thinking techniques. How would we know that they actually work? Inspiration may be drawn from personal stories of others, from psychological research and from one's own past experiences in positive thinking. Finally, a sense of responsibility is helpful. The belief that we are responsible for our state of mind, no matter what our circumstances, keeps us motivated to continue incorporating positive thinking techniques into our lives.

On the Wings of Six Dragons!

I Ching Wisdom -- Guidance from the Book of Changes (164 pages, 1994) is a delightful book by 'Wu Wei', a pen name by author Chris Prentiss. I chanced upon the book at a library book sale in 2006. Each page has a 1-line saying along with a short paragraph that explains the saying. The very first saying is about positive thinking. I love the last line with the imagery of mounting through the skies as though on the wings of six dragons! It's totally awesome! :)

(Saying 1) A situation only becomes favorable when one adapts to it.

Explanation: As long as you are angry or upset over an event, you will be unable to perceive its beneficial aspects, and you may wear yourself out with unnecessary resistance; the event may have been to your complete advantage from the first moment. Even happy turns of fortune sometimes come to us in a form that seems strange or unlucky. The event itself is simply an event; the way you respond to the event determines its final outcome in your life. Once an event has taken place, since you cannot alter the past, all that is left to you is your response. Why not respond as though the event occurred for your benefit? You will then immediately experience good feelings about the event, and by acting in accord with your feelings, you will help to bring about that end. Anyone who understands this concept and acts accordingly will mount through the skies as though on the wings of six dragons.

Firm, Positive Belief in Sports Psychology

A common theme in books by sports coaches and elite athletes is firm, positive belief. Some examples:

The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer (304 pages, 1998) by Whitsett, Dolgener and Kole is an awesome book written by psychologists from University of Iowa. The book summarizes a marathon training class that was taught five times in ten years to those who had never run a marathon before. Marathon running is not only about physical conditioning, training schedule, proper nutrition and rest. A major component is mental training. Each week, students were given a psychological technique for finishing marathons. One of the first instructions was to buy a pair of shows and register for a marathon. Then start telling everybody, "I am a marathoner. I will finish a marathon in sixteen weeks from now!". By week five, make the narrative longer: "I am a marathoner. I love running! I never get tired. I never quit on a run. I run four times a week and I never miss a training run. I love to run on hills. I run no matter what the weather is like. I will finish a marathon in eleven weeks from now!". Each of these is a firm, positive statement, exuding confidence and beaming with joy!

Another technique in the book is for handling situations when doubts arise. Consider days when the following thoughts creep up: "My legs are really tired today", "The weather is really rotten today", "My legs are sore today". Instead of using such statements as excuses to avoid training on that day, you must become aware that you're thinking negatively. Then, just append the following suffix to every such negative statement: "... but it doesn't matter!" :) This is a powerful technique.

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance (160 pages, 1997) by Tim Gallwey is a classic book on tennis coaching, originally published in 1974. Positive thinking is one of the first chapters in the book. Gallwey observed that after a bad serve, some students would castigate themselves with sentences like "Uh, I will never improve!", "Why am I such a loser?", "I should have tried harder". Students engaging in such talk never improve beyond a threshold. Their progress is hampered. Instead of beating yourself up verbally, the right approach is to have self compassion, to be gentle with yourself and keep on trying. Those familiar with the 10-day meditation camps by S N Goenka may remember his sentence "Gently bring your mind back to your breath." It's the same concept.

We are all born as positive thinkers. Consider a child who learns to flip over, crawl, stand up and walk over a period of several months. Undeterred by repeated failures, repeated tumbles, repeated falls, a child keeps on trying, joyfully! As we grow older, we sometimes have to remind ourselves of our childlike abilities :)

With Winning in Mind (182 pages, 2012) by Lanny Bassham teaches us how Olympic champions approach the game. He won the gold medal in rifle shooting in 1976 Olympic Games. His book is replete with firm, positive statements! A good read.

A two page writeup by Lanny contains glimpses of his philosophy:

This is my favorite principle of Mental Management. Every time we think about something happening, we improve the probability that it will happen. Be careful what you think about. What do you picture? Every time you worry, you improve the probability that what you are worrying about will happen. If you are worrying about scoring badly, the Subconscious, with all its power, will move you to score badly. It is not what you want, but it is what you will get if you continue to think this way. What you must do is picture scoring well.

Also, be careful what you talk about. I've seen the following situation hundreds of times. Two people meet at a competition. Person A asks, "How did you do?" Person B says, "I did terrible. Everything I did was wrong. I'm so upset and angry." B has just improved the probability of having another day just like this one in the future because he is thinking and talking about his mistakes. The really sad thing is that because Person A is listening, he is also improving the chance that he could have B's problems in the future. Be careful what you say and whom you listen to. Unfortunately, the culture of sport is often negative. It has become acceptable to talk about mistakes. Do not spend time listening to the problems of others, or you will soon inherit their problems. Your Self-Image is moving you toward what you are reinforcing if you are thinking and talking this way. It is becoming like you to make mistakes.

I was once asked, "Mr. Bassham, in the 1978 World Championships, you shot a 598/600 to win a medal. What happened on those two nines?" I answered, "Do you really want to know? Do you want to know how I got those nines? That will not help you. You don't want to know how I got two nines. What you should be asking is how I got 58 tens. Besides, I can't remember how I got the nines. I do not reinforce bad shots by remembering them." You should talk about your good shots to improve the probability that you will have more good shots in the future.

Lanny ends the writeup with the following para:

Be careful not to complain. I often hear people, in business as well as sport, complaining about their circumstances. Complaining is negative reinforcement. I teach my students not to reinforce a bad performance by getting angry. Do not reinforce a bad day at the by complaining to your spouse. Remember something that you did well each day instead. Fill your thoughts only with your best performances and you will be successful!

By the way, Lanny could not win the gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games. He had a mental failure and could not perform to the best of his ability that day. Frustrated, he started asking other champions how they performed under pressure. He summarized his findings into a system called 'Mental Management'. Armed with these techniques, Lanny Bassham dominated his sport for the next six years. He won 22 world individual and team titles, setting 4 world records and winning the coveted Olympic Gold Medal in Montreal in 1976.

Mind-Body Phenomenon, Placebo Effect, Nocebo Effect, Pygmalion Effect

Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (176 pages, 1979) by Norman Cousins is one of the books that jump-started the mind-body revolution in Western medicine. Norman fell terminally sick after inhaling some toxic gases from the exhaust of an aeroplane. His physician and his wife were supportive and allowed him to execute his own recovery plan. Over the next several months, Norman cured himself through rest, laughter and eating oranges for Vitamin C. A medical writer by profession, Norman felt the urge to help others facing similar illnesses. So he contacted famous physicians (the head of John Hopkins Hospital, for example) and described his personal experience with his illness. He was surprised by their responses! He was informed that if he had had the conviction that eating apples would have cured him, then replacing oranges by apples would have had the same effect on him! This is an example of the Mind-Body Phenomenon. Basically, the mind or the belief system of a patient has a significant effect on chances of recovery from illness. How much does the mind contribute and how? Western medicine does not have sufficient understanding yet.

Placebo Effect: Recovery from disease has two components: treatment with medicines (physical component) and the patient's belief system (psychological component). A patient's belief system is influenced by many factors like cultural upbringing, degree of strong will, doctor patient relationship, and the desire to cure oneself. Taken to the extreme, some patients recover in complete absence of medicine! This phenomenon shows up in clinical trials and is called the Placebo Effect.

In a clinical trial, patients are divided into two groups without their knowledge: "control group" and "treatment group". Those in the control group are given a fake pill. In the case of surgeries, the control group is merely anesthetized, the surgery is not done but the patient is told otherwise. The treatment group gets real medicine and in the case of surgery, goes through regular surgery. Remarkably, a large fraction of patients in the control group show alleviation of symptoms! For statistics and survey of literature on Placebo Effect, see the Wikipedia article.

Is the Placebo Effect entirely due to the patient's belief system? Is it all in the mind? No. Is the Placebo Effect partly due to the patient's belief sytem? Yes, but it is difficult to quantify, ascribe a numeric value and predict a priori to what extent a specific patient's belief system will help. The truth is that recovery is attributable to several factors, one of which is the patient's belief sytem. See article at for a survey of attempts to understand the Placebo Effect.

Nocebo Effect: In a clinical trial, patients in the "control group" are given fake pills without their knowledge. They do not know whether they are in the control group or the treatment group, which receives real pills. Some of these patients are so anxious of the possible side effects of the real drug that they start experiencing exactly those side effects that are associated with the real drug! Such is the power of belief! In the case of Nocebo Effect, it's belief of a negative outcome in patients who are consuming fake pills. A good article: NYTimes: Nocebo Effect.

Pygmalion Effect: Does the belief of an authority figure (teacher, supervisor) that a subordinate (student, employee) will be successful in a challenging task increase the chances of success of the subordinate? Yes. Psychologists call this the Pygmalion Effect. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The explanation offered is that the subordinate internalizes the positive label and succeeds accordingly. I see the Pygmalion Effect as an example of Positive Thinking in a group setting where one's belief about others' abilities increases the chances of successful execution.

Positive vs 'Not Negative'

A double negative phrase in English is of the form 'not of an undesirable situation or trait'. We should replace double negatives by positive phrases in our day to day language.

Kids Hanging off a Tree: This is the story of Arthur and David, two kids hanging from a tree branch. Arthur's dad shouted, "Arthur! Don't fall down!". David's dad shouted, "David! Hold tightly onto the branch!". As per the story, Arthur promptly fell down while David continued to hold tight and did not fall down. What is the difference between the instructions of the two dads? When the sentence construction has 'not' of an undesirable situation, is it true that the brain first conjures images of the undesirable situation, then has to negate it and imagine what the opposite looks like? In the other case, the brain clearly sees what to do.

Positive Psychology: Historically, psychiatrists have studied pathology. In other words, they studied sick people with serious ailments like schizophrenia, psychosis, phobias, and so on. The goal of psychiatry has been to help such people become "normal". Vocabulary used by psychiatrists is predominantly negative. It involves words like disorder and syndrome. Clinical psychology, which is a close cousin of psychiatry, is similar in nature.

In late 1990s, a niche area within the psychology community gained momentum when Martin Seligman became the head of the American Psychological Association. In a landmark speech in 1998, he suggested that instead of studying sick people, it would be a fantastic idea to study the healthiest, happiest individuals in society! We could then make the entire population healthier and happier than before. What an idea! The overall approach may sound obvious in hindsight. However, it was not obvious for several decades preceding the 90s. In late 90s and continuing through the decade of 2000s, hundreds of studies in positive psychology were carried out. In late 2000s, summary books started getting written. A good book is The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (384 pages, 2007) by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

How is positive psychology different from psychiatry or traditional clinical psychology? The difference in approach is simple but profound. Positive psychology dwells in enhancing the positive. Reading these books is joyful and uplifting! In fact, I'd recommend reading sports psychology books or martial arts books. These books are full of positive psychology techniques applied towards the goal of excellence in sports and martial arts. In contrast, psychiatry or traditional clinical psychology dwells in reducing the negatives. These books are really hard to read. The language is negative, with great details of what all can go wrong!

Self, Environment, Others

At Stanford, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education offers a course called Compassion Cultivation Taining. In Fall 2012, Fred Luskin taught the course. One theme that emerged during the course was to think positively about self, environment and others. For each of the activities below, find a partner and talk to them. If there is nobody to talk to, you may write these down in a notebook. Make sure that you stick to firm, positive sentences.

Self: Narrate only positive qualities in yourself for about two minutes. Then talk for five minutes about positive actions that you have done in the last few days, last few weeks and last few years.

Environment: For most people, their 'environment' consists of home, workplace and one's personal circumstances. For each of these, identify some awesome reasons to feel good. What are the positive qualities in all of these? For example, what is good about home? What's great about the workplace? And what's totally cool about one's personal circumstances?

Others: Be thankful to other people who have done something for us. Identify the individual, their action and also a quality in them. Check out the article: Thankfulness Techniques for many ideas related to gratitude.

Those Who Irritate Us Are Our Greatest Teachers

Consider people who irritate us and make us angry. Two of the Eight Verses by Dalai Lama teach us that we must revere such individuals as our teachers! They provide us valuable opportunities to improve ourselves. These fascinating thoughts are examples of positive thinking!

When I see beings of unpleasant character
Oppressed by strong negativity and suffering,
May I hold them dear - for they are rare to find -
As if I have discovered a jewel treasure!

When someone whom I have helped,
Or in whom I have placed great hopes,
Mistreats me in extremely hurtful ways,
May I regard him still as my precious teacher.

Why should we treat annoying or hurtful individuals with reverence? Because these individuals can be helpful in purifying ourselves. How? Fundamentally, we are always projecting our feelings to the external world. So when the presence of another individual generates negativity in us, we must examine ourselves to identify what lies in us that is generating that negativity. Ultimately, what matters is our reaction to individuals and situations, not these individuals and situations themselves.

A couplet by Sant Kabir comes to mind:

(original by Kabir)
nindak niyare rakhiye, angan kuti chhawai;
binu pani bin sabuna, nirmal kare subhaw.

(translation in English)
Keep your critic close to you; give him shelter in your courtyard.
Without soap and water, he cleanses your character.

Posttraumatic Growth

The response to highly challenging life circumstances lies on a spectrum. Some people become basket cases. Some become strong and resilient. The latter set of individuals are said to have experienced Posttraumatic Growth. They report greater appreciation of life, changed sense of priorities, and warmer, more intimate relationships. Such individuals treat their highly challenging life circumstances as blessings because it made them so much stronger and gave them clarity. Such thinking is pure bliss and epitomizes positive thinking!

Keep thinking positively and mount through the skies as though on the wings of six dragons! :) :) :)

18 Feb 2013
© Copyright 2008—2017, Gurmeet Manku.