Friday, May 9, 2014

Is Positive Thinking Undermining Our Health?

Michael Stanclift, N.D. 
Naturopathic Doctor
Posted: 05/07/2014 11:05 am EDT Updated: 05/07/2014 11:59 am EDT
Article from

When it comes to diseases and health, we're obsessed with the physical side of things. We have to admit, scapegoats are convenient. If we can blame a specific bacteria, virus, chemical, or food for causing our illness, we're happy to get on board with the treatments, even lifestyle changes.

But when it comes to dealing with "our issues" (unpleasant emotions, events, or thoughts) many of us believe we should just sweep that under the rug and remain positive. "Keep calm and carry on," right? Unfortunately, this kind of attitude can have terrible consequences on our health.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that we express every frustrating, depressing, or anxious thought the moment it passes through our minds, far from it. Situations don't allow it, and it could bite us. But we need to acknowledge those distressing feeling in our minds and make a sincere effort to explore them, for the sake of our health. So called "positive thinking" for the sake of appearing "positive" isn't helpful. All those thoughts and emotions we sweep under the rug? They're still there. And if we continue to ignore them, they will find ways to remind us.

I see the effects of emotional suppression with patients regularly (and have experienced it myself). Many times my patients have had a thorough workup. Their blood tests and medical imaging might show some abnormalities, but still nobody is quite sure why they're having symptoms. If they have a diagnosis (they often don't), little effort has been put into treating them. Or their medications "aren't working." Sometimes these patients are written off, told "it's all in their head."

When any patient comes in, I need to get the basic history of their illness, but we can't just stop there and call it a day. I want to know the situational context of their illness as well.

Most patients are comfortable sharing their physical symptomology, but when questions get too personal, answers don't come as quick and easy. A patients' subtle signals can tell me there's more than meets the eye. It's tricky territory, but the exploration of tough questions is when healing occurs.

An Example: A 50-year-old woman with digestive problems and high blood pressure.

When Suzie* came in to see me, she reminded me of a younger version of my grandmother. She was cheerful, warm, and talkative. Without too much digging, she told me she had painful digestion, bloating, and some other (not so nice) symptoms daily for over 20 years. In addition, her blood pressure was elevated, and she regularly suffered from migraines. After visiting her primary care doc, she'd been given two diagnoses: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and hypertension.

She came away from all this with a prescription for anti-depressants and a medication to lower her blood pressure. She had a mild decrease in her blood pressure, but reported feeling more fatigue and emotional dullness since starting her medications. She wanted to know what else could be done.

At our first visit we addressed her physical symptoms. It was clear emotions were a component, but we needed to build rapport before we went there.

At her next visit, Suzie's IBS symptoms were significantly improved. This helped build rapport and she opened up. She revealed the trauma of her past and the stressful situations she was dealing with. She had been putting up an appearance of "being okay," even agreeable, with many things she was not okay with for a long time. Over time, those buried feelings took their toll on her health.

Together, we worked using some mind-body therapies (breathing exercises, and meditations) and her healing took off! For the first time in DECADES her daily digestive symptoms were gone, once for a period of six weeks. Her migraines became much less frequent, and she found she could often stop them in their tracks with a meditation she learned. Her blood pressure normalized, too. During the nine-month course I saw her, her IBS symptoms came and went every now and again, but never with the frequency or severity of what they were like before.

Examples like these point out why "positive thinking" can undermine our health. Simply ignoring uncomfortable thoughts, events, and emotions, and replacing them with "positive" ones suppresses our actual feelings. It inhibits therapeutic moments, and actually has an opposite effect.

It takes some courage to get to the point where it's okay to feel anxious, sad, angry, and other "negative" emotions. It takes even more courage to look at emotions and understand where they came from. Feelings should be transitory, and experiencing a full range of human emotion is normal. A wise teacher once told me, "The degree to which we resist is the degree to which we suffer."

Let's not avoid one whole side of that spectrum of emotion, just to put off the appearance of being positive. Let's live as authentically as we can, for the sake of our own health, and the health of those around us.

Michael Stanclift, N.D. 
Naturopathic Doctor
Posted: 05/07/2014 11:05 am EDT Updated: 05/07/2014 11:59 am EDT
Article from

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Science of Positive Thinking: How Positive Thoughts Build Your Skills, Boost Your Health, and Improve Your Work

James Clear
Entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer
Article from

Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But "positive thinking" is also a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like "work ethic" or "persistence."

But those views may be changing.

Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.

The impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied by people who are much smarter than me. One of these people is Barbara Fredrickson.

Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, and she published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and its impact on your skills. Her work is among the most referenced and cited in her field, and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.

Let's talk about Fredrickson's discovery and what it means for you...

What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Play along with me for a moment.

Let's say that you're walking through the forest and suddenly a tiger steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion -- in this case, fear.

Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When that tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn't matter. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.

In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick -- but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you.

This is a useful instinct if you're trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don't have to worry about stumbling across tigers in the wilderness. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way -- by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.

For example, when you're in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can't think about anything else. Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actual start anything because you're paralyzed by how long your to-do list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you're lazy, and how you don't have any motivation.

In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress -- just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It's your survival instinct.

Now, let's compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain. This is where Barbara Fredrickson returns to the story.

What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into five groups and showed each group different film clips.

The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment.

Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion.

The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.

Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, "I would like to..."

Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.

In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.

But that was just the beginning. The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later...

How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skill Set

The benefits of positive emotions don't stop after a few minutes of good feelings subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.

Let's consider a real-world example.

A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move athletically (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore and examine the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy prompt the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.

These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into a scholarship as a college athlete or the communication skills may blossom into a job offer as a business manager. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on.

Fredrickson refers to this as the "broaden and build" theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.

As we discussed earlier, negative emotions do the opposite. Why? Because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger (like the tiger on the path).

All of this research begs the most important question of all: If positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the big picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?

How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life

What you can do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the "broaden and build" theory in your life?

Well, anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love will do the trick. You probably know what things work well for you. Maybe it's playing the guitar. Maybe it's spending time with a certain person. Maybe it's carving tiny wooden lawn gnomes.

That said, here are three ideas for you to consider...

1. Meditation -- Recent research by Fredrickson and her colleagues has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long-term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.

Note: If you're looking for an easy way to start meditation, here is a 10-minute guided meditation that was recently sent to me. Just close your eyes, breathe, and follow along.

2. Writing -- This study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic.

Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses. (This blew me away. Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!)

Note: I used to be very erratic in my writing, but now I publish a new blog every Monday and Thursday. I've written more about my writing process and how you can stick to your goals in this blog and this blog.

3. Play -- Schedule time to play into your life. We schedule meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into our daily calendars... why not schedule time to play?

When was the last time you blocked out an hour on your calendar just to explore and experiment? When was the last time you intentionally carved out time to have fun? You can't tell me that being happy is less important than your Wednesday meeting, and yet, we act like it is because we never give it a time and space to live on our calendars.

Give yourself permission to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion. Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment and joy, and explore and build new skills.

Happiness vs. Success (Which Comes First?)

There's no doubt that happiness is the result of achievement. Winning a championship, landing a better job, finding someone you love -- these things will bring joy and contentment to your life. But so often, we wrongly assume that this means happiness always follows success.

How often have you thought, "If I just get ___, then I'll be set."

Or, "Once I achieve ___, I'll be satisfied."

I know I'm guilty of putting off happiness until I achieve some arbitrary goal. But as Fredrickson's "broaden and build" theory proves, happiness is essential to building the skills that allow for success.

In other words, happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.

In fact, researchers have often noticed a compounding effect or an "upward spiral" that occurs with happy people. They are happy, so they develop new skills, those skills lead to new success, which results in more happiness, and the process repeats itself.

Where to Go From Here

Positive thinking isn't just a soft and fluffy feel-good term. Yes, it's great to simply "be happy," but those moments of happiness are also critical for opening your mind to explore and build the skills that become so valuable in other areas of your life.

Finding ways to build happiness and positive emotions into your life -- whether it is through meditation, writing, playing a pickup basketball game, or anything else -- provides more than just a momentary decrease in stress and a few smiles.

Periods of positive emotion and unhindered exploration are when you see the possibilities for how your past experiences fit into your future life, when you begin to develop skills that blossom into useful talents later on, and when you spark the urge for further exploration and adventure.

To put it simply: Seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. Your brain will do the rest.

James Clear
Entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer
Article from

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The negative power of positive thinking

By Bob Carden, Published: April 11 | Updated: Saturday, April 12, 10:15 PM
Posted in

I am going to be very rich, very soon. Money is coming in from the Ivory Coast. Apparently, I’m related to a prince over there, and he needs me to help him park a boatload of cash in America. My cut is $4 million. I would have to wire him a $5,000 handling fee to get the money, but $5,000 for $4 million? Who wouldn’t take that action?

I flunked geometry in 10th grade. You’re not going to run into me at a Mensa meeting. Still, I have enough sense and skepticism never to fall for a scam like that.

Louis A. Gottschalk was someone you might have seen at a Mensa meeting. Gottschalk, who died in 2008, was a renowned neuroscientist and professor at the University of California at Irvine. Late in life, according to news reports, he lost millions in your basic Nigerian Internet scam.

Behavioral economists would surely attribute Gottschalk’s lapse to what they call the “positivity delusion.”

“We’re far more inclined to embrace positive information about our own investments than negative information. We often turn that off,” says Tali Sharot, author of “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of Our Irrationally Positive Brain.”

What if the “power of positive thinking” is simply a numbing drumbeat that reinforces the positivity delusion, leading us to make blockheaded business and investment decisions?

“You have to at least entertain the possibility that the rustling in the grass could turn out to be a lion and eat you up,” says Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.”

She blames much of the subprime mortgage mess and resulting financial meltdown in 2008 on this “delusionary” positive thinking. For instance, she recounts how Michael Gelband, the onetime head of the real estate division at Lehman Bros., saw a real estate bubble as early as 2006 and warned CEO Richard Fuld that the company should rethink its business model. This moment of realism and candor got Gelband fired.

“Brokers and buyers were all whipped up, any realistic thoughts were deemed negative and not worthy, so they fired people like him,” Ehrenreich says.

Lehman filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008. Its collapse helped spark a financial crisis that spread across the globe.

The positivity delusion isn’t restricted to institutional corporate types. It infects individual traders as well. I found out the hard way.

“Averaging down” on a stock can be one of the more delusional methods of investing. It means buying a stock when its price dips with the hope that it will rise back to its highest point.

During the Internet stock craze in the late ’90s, I bought about 8,000 shares of PSInet, a local Internet service provider, for about $6 a share. By March 2000, it had run up to more than $100 a share (split-adjusted). I lived high, borrowed against it, got a Mercedes. Then the share price started dropping and my positivity delusion kicked in full throttle. I averaged down when it dropped to $40, then $22, then again at $6. I stopped averaging down about the same time I dumped the Mercedes and dusted off my old Yugo. PSInet went bankrupt; I came close.

“Averaging down makes little sense,” says Dan Solin, author of the immodestly titled “The Smartest Retirement Book You’ll Ever Read.” “It’s one of these myths that investors are fed in the financial media. The market is telling you the stock is losing value.”

Also, beware of “experts” conveying their biases on an unsuspecting public. Let’s say a broker bought a large position in Company X at $20 per share. But it’s recently dropped to $15. So he goes on CNBC or some financial show and says it’s a real buy at $15. Well, a charitable reading is that he might be brimming with positivity bias and really wants to convey that to the viewer. Or maybe he’s pumping the stock, hoping enough viewers will buy to push the price back to $20 so the broker can get out without a loss. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to switch to the Weather Channel.

“We look upon too much positive exposure on CNBC or other media as a contrarian indicator,” says Nicholas Haffenreffer, a portfolio manager with Torray Investments in Bethesda. “It gets us a bit nervous if people on TV are talking a lot about one of our positions.”

A hot market and the positivity delusions it generates make his job a lot tougher.

“Clients often ignore risk in a rising market,” he says. “They forget the rules: that cycles happen. Markets do drop, so you have to hedge. People just don’t want to hear that.”

Despite the downside, isn’t the positivity bias a catalyst for our individual genius? Without that hope, that optimism, would Thomas Edison have invented the light bulb? Would Steve Jobs have built a single gadget? Would Ron Popeil have developed spray hair in a can?

“Positivity enhances our ability to create and explore,” says Sharot, who also teaches at Harvard. “It’s how things get done. We need it. It’s part of our evolution.”

Optimism is firmly rooted in American culture. The spiritual father of the positive thinking movement was a 19th-century spiritualist, teacher and healer by the name of Phineas Quimby. Quimby rebelled against old-style Calvinism, thinking its austere nature depressed people and caused “disease-inducing guilt.” He disregarded conventional medicines and instead relied on positive thought to heal the body and foster a clear mind.

A contemporary equivalent of Quimby might be the ever-cheerful pastor Joel Osteen. He preaches the power of positive thinking and the prosperity gospel — “God wants you to be rich” — from a megachurch in Houston. Osteen commutes there from a $10 million mansion. Positive thinking has served him well.

Despite that, old-style American Calvinism, while not a load of laughs, has a lot to do with American wealth and development.

So what is the remedy? Sharot says that since we are inclined to ignore negative information about our investment and embrace positive information, we have to create some distance from the investment.

“If you are going to make an investment in something, imagine that it’s your neighbor making the investment, not yourself, and then when you evaluate it you’re likely to be much more objective,” she says.

It’s generally a good idea to stay away from any situation that you know you could not sustain long-term, says Justin Sydnor, a behavior economist at the University of Wisconsin.

“You have to ask yourself, what are you going to do in the future that’s going to change what you did in the past?” he says. “Otherwise you are just falsely believing things will get better in the future.”

And get out from under the ether of a smooth sales pitch.

“When a policeman stops you and asks for your license, he checks the license and registration — he won’t take your word for it. If you are investing, you have to do the same thing,” says Lori Schock, head of investor education at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Ehrenreich says the answers are pretty simple. “Work hard. Be realistic. Don’t fall for simple pitches that cloud your thinking — don’t let all these motivational speakers and self-help coaches block out warning signs that something bad might be on the horizon,” she says. “Things aren’t going to get better just by wishing for it.”

Carden is a documentary filmmaker based in Washington.