Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and other myths about Positive Thinking


As a kid I had a record that told the story of the Little Train that Could. And as that little train faced all the struggles of getting himself up steep hills, with a full load, he would repeat “I think I can, I think I can”.

Positive Thinking. The oldest tool in the book?

It certainly isn’t a new idea- way back in the first Century a man called Epictetus said:

“The thing that upsets people is not so much what happens, but what they think about what happens”.


This month in my Wellness column on North by Northwest on CBC Radio One,  I look at positive thinking through the eyes of three classic self help books and follow it all with a dash of contemporary science. ( If you missed it, you can hear it on the podcast for April 2nd-click here)

Here’s what I found.


The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale


Published in 1952, this book was written by Reverend Norman Vincent Peale.   He ran a little self help business right beside his church with an analyst friend.   Despite having no real training, he wrote this book.  No matter, the public ate it up and it spent over three years on the New York times bestseller list.



Best thing about this book: He introduces some basic solid advice on how to feel better and think positively.


Worst thing about this book: What was ground breaking in 1952 feels pretty trite and old hat today. There’s nothing new here.


Take Aways:

He gives his readers tips to think more positively. Some examples are:

  • Have Faith
  • Create daily Affirmations
  • Deep prayers for support
  • Remember: What you think about, you become
  • Your Mental attitude is key


Do I need to read this?

Nope.There isn’t anything here you haven’t seen on tv or on the cover of a magazine in the check out line.


In a Nutshell, here’s what I think:

This book comes from such an overpowering Christian perspective that if you aren’t a person of faith, you won’t be able to stomach it. Even for those of faith, it feels very dated in its view of the world.


The Secret by Rhonda Byrnesecret_book__large

A writer and television producer, Byrne tells us in the foreword that she was in a low point in her life, when her daughter gave her a hundred year old book that introduced her to The Secret (always with capitals). The book features 24 teachers who share with the reader anecdotes and quotes to support the power of using The Secret.

What’s the big deal? There isn’t one. The Secret is positive thinking rebranded as The Law of Attraction

Best Thing about this Book: The teachers interviewed make it feel like anything is possible.

Worst Thing about this Book: It focuses on “Just do It” without offering any real tools to help if you aren’t feeling very positive. I would think that if you picked up a book to solve your problems, you have problems, so leaping into “Everything is Awesome” isn’t going to be easy.  The kind of tips this book gives is “ I want to let you in on a secret to The Secret. The shortcut to anything you want in your life is to BE and FEEL happy now!”

Memorable Quotes:

  • ‘Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything’
  • ‘Ask once, believe you have received, and all you have to do to receive, is feel good’


Do I need to read this? If you want some inspirational quotes for your screen saver this is a great resource.

In a Nutshell: Feel good now and unleash the power to get whatever you want from your life. But if you don’t feel good, this isn’t likely going to get you out of the doldrums.

Curious where she is now? Does The Secret work for her?  Apparently, not so well…  Learn more here

intentionThe Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer

Self help guru, Wayne Dyer, rebrands positive thinking as “intention” .   This book is a mix of both the Peale and the Byrne. There is attention paid to God, now called the Source, and he posits the idea that the universe is a benevolent place you can be in the flow of. Like the Peale and like The Secret, Dyer talks about The Law of Attraction, but in kinder and gentler terms. This book is a nice mix of having success in work, but also in personal life.


Best Thing about this Book: The’ To Do’ take aways at the end of each chapter give a good mix of tasks and  approaches that you would find in traditional self help or therapy. Fairly useful for making change.

Worst Thing about this Book: It’s a little hippy dippy in its touchy feely repackaging of God as the Source.

Memorable Quote

  • ‘Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.’

Take Away: You can change your world by changing how you see it and how you see yourself.

Do I need to read this? If you want to make changes, and want some tools to get started, this book can be helpful. This focuses on who you want to ‘be’ in the world first and foremost, with ‘doing’ second.

In a nutshell: If you can see yourself as part of a greater universal whole, with kindness and gentleness, you can become what he calls a “connector” and live harmoniously and happily at all times.



What does Science Say about Positive Thinking?


These books all promote what can be seen as wishful thinking. But I haven’t forgotten you right brained types out there- here’s something from the world of social science.


Check out this TED Talk from Shawn Achor- Click here

What’s New and not so New:  He rebrands positive thinking as ” Happiness Advantage.

The revelation he has for you: We have it backwards. We think :

I work hard, I get what I want, I’m happy


But it actually needs to be:


I’m happy and because I’m happy,  I am successful.

Happiness is the starting block. It comes first.


His studies show that when you raise your positivity, you perform better, you are more intelligent (your IQ rates higher) and you are more creative – as compared to when you are in a negative, stressed  or even a neutral state.


His studies found that when people were more positive/happy, they improve measurably.  They are:

  • 31% more productive,
  • 37% better at sales
  • doctors are 19% more accurate in their diagnosis

What can you do today? Here are Three Suggestions

From Shawn Achor, he suggests you take 21 days to reprogram your brain.

  1.  For the next 21 days, write down three new things you are grateful for.


Social Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson says that positive emotions are like eating fruits and vegetables. They give us nutrients we need.

2.  She says to schedule your days so that you know there are certain events that bring you joy happening. It can be anything you like. A hobby, visiting a friend or going for a walk. If it brings you joy, it counts.


3.     She also says that studies show that starting a contemplative practice of loving kindness for others makes a big difference. Click this link to learn how to start a practise of wishing well for others.





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