Positive vs. Wishful Thinking

I’d like to address another bee in my bonnet, which, this time, is people confusing wishful thinking with positive thinking. These people postulate that thoughts have magical powers, and can do everything from helping people get rich to preventing illness of any kind, and it’s your fault if bad things happen to you because you allegedly weren’t “thinking the right thoughts.” And that’s where positive thinking turns into delusion.

I have nothing against positive thinking: it can be a great motivator–it can boost and maintain morale–but anything beyond that is wishful thinking. Thoughts do not have magical powers; action is still required if we want anything, and even then there are no guarantees. We have to understand there are things that are beyond our control–though I’ll grant how we respond to them is important. But none of us is Vilos Cohaagen from the 1990 film Total Recall–none of us has the power to alter reality to suit our whims.

And it’s thinking we can alter reality to suit our whims that positive thinking becomes wishful thinking–and that’s where the danger lies. Thought is not a panacea–thinking the so-called “right” thoughts cannot cure all that ails us. And telling people who are in bad–or undesirable–situations that they’re in those situations because of their thought processes is a reprehensible form of victim-blaming; not everyone can rise above their circumstances. And that’s the big thing that bugs me about wishful thinking posing as positive thinking: it ignores biological, political, and other realities. But big business, political leaders, and others love it because it absolves them of any responsibility to change the way they operate.

Within reason, a positive outlook can do a lot of good, and visualizing a positive outcome for our endeavours can help us persevere, especially when the going gets tough. But it’s important to realize things don’t always work out the way we want them to, and things beyond our control can get in our way. A positive outlook is good, but it’s actually not helpful to ignore the bad and the ugly, instead of acknowledging them.

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