Now associated with such books as The Secret, the positive thinking movement has been around for at least the last one-and-a-half centuries. And its early pioneers drew from traditional religious thought, including Christianity and Buddhism. They believed that the thoughts we think influence our reality and, ultimately, shape our destiny.
We can, of course, understand that by believing that we will succeed in life, and acting in accordance with that belief, is likely to make us more successful than if we believe we are doomed to failure and act as such. Yet, the positive thinking movement also claims that our thoughts will literally change the world outside of us. (It should be acknowledged, of course, some advocates of positive thinking, such as Neville Goddard, believed that everything around us is, in a sense, merely our own consciousness with no autonomous life of its own.)
According to the movement, if we believe something with sufficient conviction, or visualize it occurring with enough intensity, it will literally occur. yet, we have all experienced believing, wholeheartedly, that something will occur that did not. We have all experienced shock and surprise. And these emotional reactions should be impossible if believing really does mold the world around us to our beliefs. We cannot be shocked or surprised without genuine expectation, which is often played out in the mind through daydreaming (or visualization). Unexpected, unpredictable things happen, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.
Unfortunately, at times, the positive thinking movement can sound much like a religion with much belief but little theology, blaming starving or war-ravaged peoples for the tragedies that have befallen them. Buddhism has avoided this problem by noting that there is a personal karma as well as a karma that is beyond our individual agency — a karma of the times, a zeitgeist. We are affected by the world around us. And we must find creative ways to interact with it.
Nevertheless, the positive thinking movement has also been unfairly maligned, in recent years, as a movement of naive New Agers and wishful thinkers, willfully fooling themselves to cover up their own inability to act in the world. Doubtlessly, there are individuals who fit that description. And we have probably all met one or two of them. But, as the positive thinking movement recognized long ago, the power of thought is quite real.
But positive thinking is real only as it is the foundation or accompaniment of positive action. Making changes in our life — moving city, changing careers, taking up a martial art or yoga, exhibiting our art or work before the world, appearing on stage, and so on — causes us to feel apprehension and, yes, even fear.
Most people find excuses not to act. When people do make a significant life change, often, it is thrust upon them in the form of a job loss, an industry collapsing, a divorce, or an illness.
We might note that the ancient tribal shaman (priest, sorcerer, or magician) often suffered from a serious sickness prior to seeking initiation as a shaman. Misfortune and loss often push individuals towards greatness, while comfort never has. But, ultimately, in our fast-changing world, it is better for us to see the trends in the world and to initiate ourselves before circumstances are thrust upon us: developing ourselves mind, body, and spirit; developing our intellect, skills, our creativity, our cultural understanding and appreciation, and our ability to move outside of our comfort zone.
As Mitch Horowitz illustrates in his One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, although we don’t always recognize it, the positive thinking movement permeates our culture (especially in the USA). Everything from business and entrepreneurialism to politics (think of Obama’s “yes we can” slogan) and professional sports have adopted it, with entrepreneurs and athletes using it to mentally rehearse, overcome challenges, gain confidence, and focus on goals. This possibility is open to all of us, regardless of what we want to achieve.
I don’t want to minimize the metaphysics of positive thinking. Strange coincidences, lucky breaks, and opportunities often seem to open up when we take action towards our goals. Some things feel destined. But we have to discern the difference between wishful thinking and positive thinking, between faith, and faith with action.