How Far Can Positive Thinking Take You?

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By News Team on December 27, 2019

Can positive thinking help you be healthy and successful? 
Yes…and no. 
Some recent studies suggest that—like in the children's story The Little Engine That Could—positive thinking alone can help you meet your goals.

That could mislead people, says Richard Seidel, Ph.D., director of research in Carilion Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine

“It can’t hurt to think positively, but don’t mistake that as replacement for the hard work we all need to do to solve problems and meet challenges at home and work,” he said.

wooden blocks arranged as steps with increasingly positive motivational quotes on each level
A positive attitude isn't all you need to reach your goals, but a negative attitude will make it much harder to take (and stick to) the actions needed to attain them.

Overall, negative thinking is only part of the story.

“If you want to change your behavior and improve your life, you need to have a very clear understanding of the goal you’re trying to reach and the resources necessary to make that happen," Dr. Seidel noted. 

He recommends four steps to take to solve a problem:

  • Define the problem
  • Research potential solutions
  • Weigh all the information you've gathered to choose the best course
  • Act on what you have learned

That last step is key. “If you just rely on positive thinking, you could become very discouraged when nothing changes for the better,” Dr. Seidel pointed out.

The little steam train in the children's book didn't just think his way to the other side of the mountain with the weight of a disabled freight train behind him. Instead, believing he could summon the strength to succeed gave him the confidence to try—and to keep trying when he encountered obstacles.

So how does this compare with the positive-thinking studies?

toy train engine perched on real railroad track
The little steam train in the children's book didn't just think his way to the other side of the mountain. He used that positive attitude to take action, and to keep trying when he encountered obstacles along the way.

“Some studies that recommend positive thinking don’t look deeply enough at why people with a good attitude have good outcomes,” Dr. Seidel said. “They presume that one causes the other, but correlation does not indicate causation. In fact, if you look closely at these articles, you’ll often see that their conclusions are qualified by words such as 'could cause' or 'might be due to'.”

What that means is that people who think positively may be more inclined to take action and stick to their goals than those who start with a negative mindset about how successful they may be. 

The takeaway? There’s no one quick solution to life’s problems. Identify the steps you need to take, arm yourself with information to help you meet your goals ... and then begin working to attain them.