Norman Vincent Peale wrote a bestselling book in the 1950’s,
“The Power of Positive Thinking.” I read
it a few years ago and found it to be a tad simplistic but it had an undeniable point: a positive attitude is important in
In my last post I described the dangers of magical thinking
– since it opens the door to pseudoscience-touting snake oil salesmen. But now we will turn our attention to
positive thinking – a favorable psychological condition.
There is no doubt that there is a mind-body connection that
affects health. “Type A personalities”
are known to engage in behaviors that increase the risk for heart attack;
anxiety and perceived stress can cause higher output of adrenaline and
cortisol, and in turn contribute to inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart
disease, sleep disturbances, and weight gain.
Depressed individuals (for example) are more likely to suffer from pain
syndromes, and may have impaired immune function.
Because our mind influences the health of our body, it is
physically therapeutic to focus attention on peace of mind as a preventive
health measure. And in so far as
techniques are developed to reduce stress, decrease mental anguish, and improve
psychological wellbeing – they are helpful in keeping the body in a healthier
Now, the temptation is to
exaggerate the benefits of peace of mind – that one might be able to avoid
cancer (for example) with the right attitude, which is blatantly false. So this is where positive thinking and
magical thinking can be confused.
Magical thinking ascribes excessive value to a treatment, while positive
thinking understands the limitations of treatments and yet respects the reality
of the mind-body connection.
Let’s consider back pain, for example. A magical thinker would look for the “secret
cure” for their back pain, and turn over every stone – fully anticipating that he would discover a miracle solution that others don’t know
about. He would read books promising the
ultimate back treatment “that your doctor doesn’t want you to know about” and
would spend a great deal of money on treatments that have been
rumored to have some benefit in treating back pain (without any supporting evidence). The magical thinker is vulnerable to snake
oil, and would rather risk thousands of dollars on experimental treatments than
consider traditional modalities first.
A positive thinker, on the other hand, will realize that
back pain is difficult to treat, has variable causes, and responds to different
therapies based on an individual’s unique circumstances. A positive thinker would have a realistic
view of recovery, would accept the limitations of therapeutic options, but
would focus on his abilities rather than his disabilities and look for ways to
make the best of his current circumstances.
He would actively participate in physical activity, perhaps join a support
group, get good rest and engage in a healthy lifestyle while working towards a
brighter tomorrow one step at a time.
Definitions for clarity:
Snake oil is a treatment whose efficacy is knowingly exaggerated by those who wish to turn a profit on its sale. E.g. diet pills that will “miraculously correct morbid obesity in a matter of weeks.”
A placebo is a treatment that has no known plausible mechanism for a physical effect – but may affect the individual through the mind-body connection. E.g. a sugar pill that is substituted for a pain killer may cause a patient to experience his pain differently, though there is no active ingredient in the pill.
An untested treatment is neither snake oil nor a placebo but could be used as either under certain circumstances. It is simply a proposed intervention of unclear clinical significance. There are many of these currently undergoing scientific review, and it takes patience to analyze their potential efficacy and safety.
A magical thinker is a person who is willing to accept snake oil as a valid treatment option for his condition despite a vast preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Magical thinking is belief-based, rather than evidence-based. Many very good and reasonable people are tempted to adopt magical thinking under duress.
A positive thinker is a person who choses to look for the positives in all circumstances, and approaches health with a can-do attitude. Realistic and yet optimistic, the positive thinker will focus on abilities rather than disabilities – and reach out for support as needed to optimize his psychological well being.
All of this is simply to say that a positive attitude, peace of mind, stress reduction techniques and a healthy lifestyle are an important foundation for good health. Placebos are most relevant for influencing psychological well being or pain perception (obviously they’re not appropriate for treating infections, type 1 diabetes, and the like), and magical thinking and snake oil are dangerous hindrances to wellbeing. Stay positive and protect yourself from snake oil salesmen. Knowledge is power. There are voices of reason to guide you here at Revolution Health.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.