The pleasures and perils of positive thinking

SunrisePositive thinking has a great reputation for changing lives, empowering individuals against adversity and helping people cognitively cope with otherwise debilitating conditions of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem brought on by issues of abuse or other negative life experiences.

That was a long sentence describing the pleasures of positive thinking. There are a few perils that come with it.


For example, some people use a brand of positive language as a recruiting tool. Plenty of hucksters leverage the language of positive thinking to manipulate people into situations where they are not encouraged to think for themselves. That brand of supposed positivity is marketed in those big stadium conventions where motivational speakers spout inspiring stories or brag about their own success. Usually, they have a book to market or a bankload of recordings to sell that don’t really say much more than they just blabbered onstage. This is the “motivation for sale” brand of positive thinking, and it’s bogus at best. People buy it to fill in the blanks in their own lives in hopes the inspiration will stick.


Enter a caption

The perils of motivation for sale are not exactly profound. It probably doesn’t actually hurt anyone to hear some highly-paid motivational speaker spout their canned speech about how they overcame adversity to become a general or pro athlete or business leader. But let’s be frank: that kind of banal encouragement does not necessarily drive your personal mission in life. You still have to find your own specific motivations for your personal goals. That’s far more important than trying to absorb some sort of inspiration from afar.

For athletes, this means understanding your physical capacities and mental strengths. Only then can vicarious inspiration drive you to new levels of performance. That can require the assistance of a real coach or someone who gets to know you well enough to provide genuine, positive guidance. Only then can vicarious inspiration from an outside source or motivational speaker drive you to new levels of performance.



Is this an oxymoron?

Faux positivity is also a tool used by network marketing programs designed to recruit people into pyramid organizations. The power of so-called ‘positive thinking’ is especially effective in situations where some form of “investment” in the products (to be sold) is required. The goal of such companies is to convince people they are part of a ‘higher ideal.’ Thus associates are encouraged to completely adopt the “company line” in order to succeed.

The peril of this brand of positivity is that it is typically partnered with a demand (or command) to ignore all voices that say you can’t succeed. The risk in this mentality is that it can drive away the people you most need to trust. That would be people who can advise you if things do get carried away. That’s what’s really insidious about manipulative forms of ‘positive thinking.’

That’s what’s really insidious about the network marketing brand of ‘positive thinking.’ The mindset is specifically formulated to isolate you and pull you into a culture from which there is neither recourse or escape.

That differs greatly from people who network with others to achieve success around commonly understood rather than those projected upon them by an outside force. Among athletes, this brand of bonding often takes place through shared experiences, especially those collective moments in training where difficulties are overcome.

The positivity that emerges from sharing such common effort is genuine. Yet it is also far different than the manufactured commonality offered by organizations that essentially hide the source of true suffering (such as sales rejection) in order to create a sense of dependency or owed loyalty to the organization. That is cult-like.


Christian imperfect

It appears perfection is not the goal of positive thinking here.

Some sects of faith encourage people to place all their trust in God. Typically that level of trust is viewed as a clearcut case of ‘positive thinking.’

Yet there are practical risks to that brand of thinking. If things don’t work out for the better, is that the fault of God? That can force people to resort to some coarse rationalizations, such as: “Well, it wasn’t God’s Will.” And from there, one can fill in the blanks…

“Well, it wasn’t God’s Will for (me/her/him) to beat that cancer. 

“Well, it wasn’t God’s Will for me to win that race…”

Really? We’re going to first force the hand of God and then place blame if things don’t turn out the way we planned? That’s not positive thinking.

We’re all accustomed to watching athletes in victory point to the sky and go on the

Free-Christian-Wallpaper-Matthew-5-48 (1)

Which is it? Be perfect or not? The Bible is often contradictory.

microphone giving God the Glory for their victory. But what about all the other athletes who prayed to God and did not win? That’s not a positive message. At all.

Instead, the real positive thinking when it comes to religion centers around gratitude. That is, being thankful for the opportunity to compete, and for friends and even competitors who help make us better.

So you see, positive thinking is not some lockstep solution to all the problems in life. The wrong kind of supposedly ‘positive thinking’ can lead us down all sorts of paths to personal deception and misery. The Bible itself is often patently contradictory. Those are the perils of religiously-driven positive thinking.

The true pleasures of positive thinking are found more often in the adoption of a practical mindset and belief that hard work and consistent discipline can produce positive results. Athletes know this as well as anyone else. We have more opportunities to learn these lessons than the average person, because when we step out the door each day to begin a workout, we face a world of obstacles and challenges to overcome.

Thinking positively about the fact that we can overcome those obstacles is just the beginning. The rest is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.


But let’s be clear about something. One of the most motivational experience I’ve had in my entire life occurred during the late stages of a cross country season in which our team placed second in the nation. Our coach overhead several of us talking about whether we were burned out from a season of training and racing. He knew that we had the capacity to race well in the qualifying and national series. But he grew concerne that our mindset had shifted from positive to negative.

In fact he grew so exasperated on evening that he issued an order to us about the nature of our communication. “Tonight I want seven miles at 6:30 pace, and no talking. Not a word the entire run.”

We embarked on an entirely silent route. Nothing but the noise of our footfalls on the gravel roads in Decorah, Iowa. The power of that experience of running together without talking proved more positively motivating than a single word or a thousand words.

And two weeks later we rose to the occasion. We were positively motivated by the force of our individuality and the collective resolve to make the most of a moment in life. And that’s the power of positive thinking.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
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