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"The Tyranny of Positive Thinking"

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The following article was written about patients dealing with cancer. This was excerpted on to a website of someone with MS. For our purposes, substitute "chronic illness" for cancer. This is also a good reminder that we are not the only ones who get "blamed" for what goes wrong.

If you don't like the theme of this article, that is fine, don't get upset. This was intended for the people who needed to hear something like this and feel some relief from the burden of mental hygeine-- constantly policing ones thoughts for anything negative and then scrubbing it away.

My personal notion is that thoughts and feelings come and go and cannot hurt us as long as we do not cling to any particular set as being more powerful than another. I believe that all feelings have a right to exist, and can eventually become useful, as long as they are respected.

The opinions expressed in the following do not necessarily represent the views held by Prohealth, ImmuneSupport.com, the message board moderators, or a general concensus of the members of the board... ;)

"The Tyranny of Positive Thinking," by Jimmie Holland, M.D., is adapted from the recent book, The Human Side of Cancer, Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty, by Holland and Sheldon Lewis. Dr. Holland is a physician/psychiatrist who has counseled people with cancer over the past 24 years at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City.

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

As a physician/psychiatrist who has counseled people with cancer over the past 24 years, I have learned a lot about the difficult things people have to cope with when they have any kind of cancer--the negative and frightening meaning of the word cancer (particularly leukemia or lymphoma), and the feeling that people look at them differently. A patient said to me,"I'm not Joe anymore, I'm Joe with cancer." And they must cope with the distress of symptoms of the illness and its treatments, which is enough in itself, but that gets coupled with dealing with the nagging fears about the future.

It began to be clear to me about ten years ago that society was placing another undue and inappropriate burden on patients that seemed to come out of the popular beliefs about the mind-body connection. I would find patients coming in with stories of being told by well meaning friends, "I've read all about this-- if you got cancer, you must have wanted it." Others said, "I've been told that my personality must have caused my cancer and I guess I just didn't handle stress right in my life." Even more distressing was the person who said, "I know I have to be positive all the time and that is the only way to cope with cancer-but it's so hard to do. I know that if I get sad, or scared or upset, I am making my tumor grow faster and I will have shortened my life." These people didn't come up these ideas on their own--they got them from many places in our current culture: books, tabloids, talk shows, and TV. These ideas have come out of interest in the mind-body connection, based on research showing that stress can affect the immune system. The connection is carried further: if stress affects the immune system, and the immune system has something to do with cancer, then stress must cause cancer. This oversimplified pop psychology is typified by an article in the National Enquirer about Jackie Kennedy. The headline was "Stresses in Jackie's Life Led to Her Death From Lymphoma." It is important that people know that research simply does not back up these ideas. The only way that personality becomes a factor in causing cancer is when your personality leads to a life style that puts you at greater risk of cancer, such as smoking and sun exposure, raising the risk of lung cancer and melanoma. Obviously, also important is the fact that your personality leads you to have a rational approach to health, like diet and exercise, and that you followup in a timely way any significant suspicions of cancer with a consultation and treatment.

I felt some one needed to advocate for patients who were having to deal with these negative attitudes and I set out to set the record straight in my recent book about the human side of cancer, outlining what is myth and what is reality, based on what we know from research on the mind-body connection and cancer. Barbara Boggs Sigmund, mayor of Princeton in the 1980s, wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times that I very much admired for her courage to fight back when accosted with these attitudes. She suffered from a melanoma that developed in the back of her eye. In an article titled, "I didn't give myself cancer," she spoke of her rage at self-help books that suggested "I had caused my own cancer out of lack of self-love, a need to be ill, or the wish to die and that consequently, it was up to me to cure it." She spoke against the theory that "cancer cells are internalized anger gone on a field trip all over our bodies" or that "rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, I can beat the odds if I only learn to love myself enough."

The attitude that "you caused your cancer" is very much related to a common psychological method we use in dealing with a catastrophic event or illness, namely we "blame the victim." We look for a rational cause as to why it happened--often concluding that the person must have "brought it on himself." That allows us to say, "Well, it couldn't happen to me--it was his own fault." It produces a false sense of security that we can prevent events that are actually beyond our control.

So rule number one in coping is: "Don't believe you brought cancer on yourself." The research does not show that either personality or how you handle stress in your life raises risk of developing cancer. This is one of the myths that makes coping more difficult these days..

Rule number two is: "Don't believe that you have to have a positive attitude all the time and that sadness or worry will shorten your survival." This tyranny of positive thinking is also related to the "mind over matter" ideas of our society. It is unrealistic that as you cope with nausea, fatigue, and worry and sadness, that you can be positive all the time. Yet, zealous believers in positive thinking may make you feel guilty when you find yourself crying sometimes. There is no evidence that if you do become "down" at times, it affects your tumor. If you are surrounded by the "positive attitude police," tell them to get off your case and be realistic--and offer them The Human Side of Cancer to read to get the facts straight, separating facts from beliefs.

It is also important to remember that our ways of coping with adversity (and illness is just one more example) are as different as our DNA and our fingerprints-each of us copes in a unique way because of our genetic makeup, our temperament, and the events in our lives that shape how we cope and see the world around us. Some people are innately optimistic--the positive thinking idea fits them well-they see the glass as two-thirds full! But just as many others are pessimistic by nature--the glass is only one third full! I recall Ernie who never believed for a moment that his treatment for lymphoma would help--he went through each treatment, telling me that he wouldn't make it. If the positive attitude told the story, Ernie shouldn't have made it. But 10 years later, he is healthy--and just as pessimistic about life as he had always been!

The problem that comes from this paradigm is that if the positive thinker's illness begins to worsen, the immediate response is guilt that "I wasn't strong enough the fight the disease." This is an unfair burden for a person who has coped and with courage and grace. There are many other factors that determine outcome, many that we don't know. I have seen positive copers who didn't make it and negative pessimists who did--which simply says that personality and coping isn't everything.

Surely we need much more research in this area of mind-body, which is developing in the new, small field of psychoneuroimmunology. While stress does affect the immune system, there is no evidence that the blips produced are in the range of those that would affect tumor growth. We will know more in the future, but for now, the studies do not support the myths about psychological causes of cancer and the role of emotions in tumor growth. The mind-body connection is fascinating because people hold such strong beliefs about it. I have come to feel that it is very much like religion. There are people who are "believers" and all the data in the world couldn't shake their faith. "Nonbelievers" simply are those who would not likely believe in the mind-body connection, even if the data were produced.

I strongly advocate that people use whatever beliefs or activities they find helpful - like relaxation, meditation, religious and spiritual approaches. Prayer is likely the most widely used of all interventions to help in coping.

What matters in the long run is that you find a view of illness and way of coping that is comfortable. Whether it involves believing or not believing in the mind-body connection is far less important. We have found that how you cope will likely be similar to how you have coped with major problems in your life. Don't allow family and others to tell you that you are "doing it all wrong," and that you must be more positive and cope in a new way that is foreign to your natural style. The old adage, "Don't change horses in the middle of the stream," is quite apt here. If your way of coping starts not to work, however, it is wise to seek counseling with someone who is familiar with the problems of people with cancer, like the social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist (when medicine is needed for anxiety or depressed mood or poor sleep.) They can help to reinforce your familiar and proven ways of coping and offer you some ideas about how to approach the problems of illness to make it less upsetting and a little easier for you to deal with them.

Bottom line--identify your own beliefs about the mind-body connection and use them as they are comfortable for you, based on your temperament and your natural ways of coping. Remind your family and your doctor that they are most helpful when they respect your well-honed way of coping and respect your need to express how you feel, even if it isn't positive!


New Member
Thanks Desertlass

Great article and I especially like this comment -

"What matters in the long run is that you find a view of illness and way of coping that is comfortable. Whether it involves believing or not believing in the mind-body connection is far less important."

I posted the article below here a few weeks ago and it covers a similar viewpoint though it's not related to chronic illnesses.

TC, Tansy


Femail: The Daily Mail
18th September 2007

Why aren't I happier?' sometimes seems the anthem of our age. We look for happiness everywhere: through work, success, through our choice of partner and even in our home.

And when we don't find it we turn to shrinks, to life coaches, even to TV makeover shows.

It's the great contradiction of our times. We have a better lifestyle, more holidays, newer cars, and more disposable income than any previous generation.

Yet we're unhappier than ever, with a constant stream of statistics about stress, depression, loneliness and even suicide.

In one survey this year, half of those interviewed said they were more stressed than five years ago, with one in three drinking to relieve their unhappiness.

'It's the little things that give the greatest contentment'

Another piece of research found that we have fewer than half the number of friends we had in the Sixties.

Of course there are some good reasons for our anxiety. We live in a world where change is fast and we can't control it.

Work is pressured. Families, once round the corner, are often either fractured or distant.

Even marriage isn't the reliable safety net against loneliness it once was.

But my own belief is that we are looking for happiness in the wrong places.

Life has taught me to stand back from money, success and approval and view things with a cooler eye.

And it seems to me that a much more reliable source of satisfaction comes from appreciating the little things in life, the small pleasures that do not depend on relationships, money or marriage.

Women are better at this than men. We tend to see life not as a ladder which must be climbed but as a web which stretches outwards through all the different aspects of our lives - home, work, family and friendships - providing hundreds of small satisfactions.

When she was asked what gave her the greatest pleasure in life, Lady Thatcher replied: "Taking the fluff out of the tumble dryer." I know exactly what she means.

Some tiny tasks do offer an inordinate amount of satisfaction. Even changing a fuse or tidying an airing cupboard can restore a feeling of being in control when life threatens to run away with you.

Some small pleasures are simply about indulgence - wrapping yourself in a warm towel after a bath, feeling the soft kiss of cashmere against your skin, eating good bread, unwrapping a bar of your favourite chocolate.

But the everyday pleasures that bring most happiness, it seems to me, lie in connectedness.

Modern life has severed the connections that once gave it meaning. We no longer live in the place where we were born.

We travel everywhere by car, shop in anonymous supermarkets and often hardly know our neighbours. No wonder we sometimes feel depressed or isolated.

I had a clear lesson in this a few months ago. A removal van drew up opposite my house and I saw a blonde woman talking to the removal man.

"Are you moving in?" I asked. "No," she replied. "Moving out, I've lived here for four years."

So now I make a point of talking to people. My mother-in-law from Glasgow always used to chat to complete strangers in the street - much to my embarrassment - but I am beginning to realise she was right.

Making contact with other human beings makes you feel instantly better.

Since starting to talk to people I have discovered all sorts of fascinating facts about my area: the paper boy who has been delivering our newspapers for seven years is now 20 and studying Italian and Spanish at university, our greengrocer is a Spurs fan from Cyprus, the local florist was set up in business (with his boyfriend) by his mum and the local wine shop is run by Parisians.

And all this was happening without my noticing.

Now I know all this I feel far more connected to my community and shopping has become much more fun.

There are lots of other small ways we can restore our sense of connectedness: holding the hand of a small child connects you to future generations, recycling connects you to the future of the planet.

And drinking a glass of champagne in the bath connects you to sensual pleasure.

Once I began thinking about the nature of pleasure I realised it is actually quite complex.

Some small pleasures involve relief: that heady feeling when you think something bad is going to happen and it doesn't...

You come back to your car ten minutes late and discover you haven't got a parking ticket; you find an important document you'd lost; your suitcase turns up when you thought the airline had lost it.

In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald described happiness as "the relief after extreme tension". Absolutely.

Other pleasures involve a small sacrifice: you let another motorist into the traffic and are rewarded by a smile of gratitude; you give blood and feel you're doing something useful.

At my local Sainsbury's I always resented having to pay a £1 coin to use a trolley and then crossing a main road to take the trolley back; but now, instead of keeping the refunded £1 coin, I have started giving it to the Big Issue seller, along with another 50p, and I quite enjoy the whole experience.

Which brings me to perhaps a particularly female set of pleasures: multi-tasking. Women just love to do two - or even more - things at once.

Trying to fit too much into a day can be the cause of unhappiness and stress, but multi-tasking gives us a sense of clawing back time from the great hamster-wheel of life.

While waiting to pick up a child I often clean out the car with a dustpan and brush; I combine dog walking with shopping, and always empty the dishwasher while the kettle's boiling.

A friend who has a very high-powered job went even further, she returned her phone calls while sitting on the loo - until an important client sussed out what she was doing and she had to be more discreet.

Even small rituals can give intense pleasure. I used to laugh at my mother for plumping up the cushions on the sofa before she went to bed. Now I do it myself and feel all's well with the world.

And there's the great delight to be found simply in objects that perfectly fulfil their purpose.

I especially love suitcases with wheels, remembering as a student how I lugged mine, pre-wheels, across sweltering Athens.

I own a perfect champagne bottle-opener which makes me smile each time I use it, as does the 20-year-old squidgy plastic spatula that removes the last bit of cake-mix.

The natural world, too, is positively bursting with everyday delights: the first crisp days of autumn; the sight of sun sparkling on a dewy spider's web; picking blackberries; a woodpecker tapping away in your garden. All these are guaranteed to make your spirits sing.

But the small things I find give the greatest pleasure are those which somehow hold an echo of the past: building a fire and watching it crackle is not only pleasurable in itself but has the added joy of feeling it has been done since the beginning of time.

Folding sheets and towels and putting them into an airing cupboard gives you the buzz of feeling you have a well-run household.

I am not wildly domestic (in fact, just like my mother, who was a fulltime doctor and mother of four, I'm more interested in domestic shortcuts than domestic chores) yet I still take great pleasure in hanging clothes on a line, feeling they will be dried by what my Gran would have called "a good drying wind" - as well as saving the planet's scarce resources.

In fact, I find a surprising number of small pleasures come from what a previous generation would have called "thrift".

I'm sure the enthusiasm for recycling strikes a chord with many people - especially women - who hate the level of waste in our society.

I derive great satisfaction from the ten minutes I spend every day sorting out wine bottles (too many) from plastics and paper - ignoring my family's taunts that it probably all goes in the same big hole.

And every time I find a new use for an ice-cream carton I feel positively ecstatic.

In case life's small pleasures are beginning to sound too worthy, let me assure you there are plenty which are anything but.

Painting your toenails, having a great haircut, giving and receiving sexy massages, Girls' Nights Out, drinking champagne, eating the froth on your cappuccino. All these are a constant source of delight.

The thing about small pleasures is they can be quite contradictory - I recycle rubbish, yet have a weakness for expensive lingerie; I let other motorists into the traffic, yet often hate giving up a parking space I don't really need - but who said human beings are consistent.

Appreciating the small pleasures of life, it seems to me, is so much more useful than turning to self-help books.

I used to be quite a mug for these - Be Your Own Life Coach; Cure Your Depression In Thirty Days etc - but I realised I would get halfway through and resent being talked down to.

I especially hated all the advice about decluttering your life both spiritually and physically, either by throwing away your treasured possessions in favour of some ludicrous minimalist fad or even throwing away your dull old friends because they are apparently a drain on our precious emotional resources.

What utter nonsense! Both possessions and old friends, no matter how occasionally annoying, are part of what gives our life meaning.

For centuries small pleasures have lifted women from the drudgery of housework, the exhaustion of family life, the grief of loss and the loneliness of old age.

Our modern pleasures may be different, but they still have the same effect.

In fact being part of that long continuum of female enjoyment of small things is a pleasure in itself.

While I was researching a novel set in the 17th century I came across an entry from the diary of Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick.

She took particular delight, she recorded, in "walking in autumn among dead leaves", in watching a silk-worm spin and - my particular favourite - in the hen belonging to her cousin, Lady Essex Rich, which always laid her eggs inside the house. And that was the year 1651.

Noticing small pleasures is an attitude of mind - you can look at life and see all the annoyances and disasters - or you can appreciate the little things that are always there for you.

Men may come and go, money has a nasty habit of disappearing, success can prove illusory. But there will always be warm towels, crisp mornings, good bread and Girls' (or perhaps Old Ladies') Nights Out to get you through.

Froth On The Cappuccino: How Small Pleasures Can Save Your Life by Maeve Haran (Hay House, £8.99).



New Member
This is very much needed.

Having been a hypnotherapist, I know the power of the mind. But, while positive thinking (and imagery) etc do help, they're hardly a cure any more than negative thinking is a cause.

If that'd been true, I've known some people who would have died a whole lot sooner and others who wouldn't have lived as long...!

all the best,



Well-Known Member
Read somewhere a couple years ago that positive thinking and its power have been around 50 years. Not clear that much has been accomplished.

Positive thinking says things are fine even if they're not. Cognitive behavioral therapy aims at realistic thinking. Yes, this is a problem but it's managable. Not the end of the world. I have at least 3 options here, etc.

Something to think about anyway.




New Member
Thanks, guys, for your response. I hesitate to share anything that isn't popular, but then I always figure that someone besides me could benefit.

Mostly I liked the notion that you can't "hurt yourself" during the times when you are feeling down and less than hopeful.

Tansy, I enjoyed the article that you posted-- I loved the bit about Margaret Thatcher enjoying removing "the fluff from the tumble dryer."

My aim was to help ease any guilt or self-recrimination that someone might be feeling as a result of "I can't seem to heal myself".

I know I have had bouts of this many times, because of the culture's current mindset, and all of the self-styled gurus who are making promises on behalf of the universe.

Take care,

I run across people who say I brought CFS on myself and that positive thinking will help. Even people with only FMS or mild CFS say positive thinking will help those of us who have severe CFS. I can't believe people buy into this kind of thinking so much. I guess this positive thinking stuff is so prevalent they feel it must be right because the majority of people seem to think it is. What a bunch of New Age malarky!

There was a study on the effects of positive thinking on cancer done years ago and it found that positive thinking didn't help the outcome at all. This was in the news for a long time. Either people didn't hear about it or they forgot about it or they dismissed it out of hand. Positive thinking = Wishful thinking.