Centre for Confidence and Well-being

Skip to content

Differences between Positive Thinking and Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology is different from 'Positive Thinking' in a number of fundamental respects.

To illustrate the differences in approach we have based our comparison on the most outlandish, American type of positive thinking books or courses.  Key characteristics of Positive Psychology

  • Positive Psychology is a development within academic psychology which has relevance for other disciplines, such as economics, as well as policy-makers and practitioners across a variety of sectors.
  • Positive Psychology has a strong intellectual base and intellectual credibility: Not only are its leaders serious intellectuals and scholars but they are also empiricists.
  • Positive Psychologists are at pains to point out that they are not telling people how to live their lives and are simply describing what the evidence suggests about the benefits of various approaches and techniques.  
  • Positive Psychologists do not make out that somehow it is easy to be positive. In fact they argue that it is easier to be negative, than positive, as the brain is hard-wired to think negatively.
  • Positive Psychologists are not simply interested in developing the individual but in helping to create positive institutions.

Key characteristics of 'American-style' Positive Thinking

  • Positive Thinking is a branch of popular psychology, or personal development, which suggests that there a few techniques which you can learn which will help you control your mind and 'realise your dreams'. There is a strong tendency in this genre to oversell what is being offered: the techniques will 'change your life', you will 'control your fears' and become 'a new you'.
  • Positive Thinking approaches are rarely supported by evidence other than stories of individuals who have made 'amazing journeys'. Browse through these books and you quickly get the impression that if your life isn't changed overnight then you aren't trying hard enough. This means that if you try these techniques and they don't work you might be left feeling even worse about yourself as this is another failure to add to your list.  
  • Positive Thinking often lacks intellectual coherence and credibility. The basic premise is that you can use your mind to get anything you want in life 'a new career, business success, an ideal partner, happiness' if you simply want them badly enough and use a variety of techniques to channel your attention and energy. Some gurus even encourage people to use these techniques to alleviate themselves of all the minor hassles in life such as getting a good parking space or a taxi cab. Just picture yourself getting that parking space and lo and behold it will be there waiting for you! This is a belief system which insults the millions of people on this earth who do not have enough food and are dying of starvation. Are they not wanting, or visualising, strongly enough to get their needs met? Or is 'the universe' more interested in responding to Westerners' desires for an easy parking space or ideal home rather than meeting the needs of people in poor third world countries?

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

Centre Events Previous Centre Events External Events Carol's Talks