“I will win the next International Chopin Piano Competition.”

No matter how good I am at positive affirmations, that won’t work: I do not play piano.

I tried to read books on positive thinking, but they made me mistrust the genre. The idea that you can achieve anything by positive thinking makes no sense. For example:

  • I can’t win a competition by thinking that I will win. Indeed, everyone can think positively that they are winners, but only one person actually wins.
  • I can’t replace work with positive thinking. I will not improve at playing the piano until I take lessons and practice.
  • I can’t create the impossible. I can’t turn my eyes blue, no matter how hard I think.

Positive thinking might actually be harmful. I can invest tons of time into trying to change my natural eye color by using my thoughts, when instead I could just use my money and buy some colored contact lenses. Or, if I think myself rich, I might start spending more money than I have and end up bankrupt.

However, perhaps I should not have totally dismissed the idea of positive thinking. While it does have logical inconsistencies, such as those in my examples above, maybe there are ways in which positive thinking is helpful.

First, we should treat these beliefs not as a guarantee, but probabilistically. For example, if you think that you can win the piano competition, the judges will feel your confidence, and may give you slightly better marks.

Second, positive thinking can work, if we choose our affirmations correctly. I recently discovered that I am deceiving myself into believing that I am hungry when I’m not. I should be able to reverse that. I should be able to persuade myself that I am not hungry when I am.

I decided to start small. I tried to persuade myself that tiramisu doesn’t really taste good. Once that seemed to be working, I got more serious. I bought a couple of CDs with affirmations for weight loss.

Unfortunately, they want me to lie down and relax. I do not have time to lie down. I could listen when I am driving or when I am cleaning my kitchen. Hey, does anyone know some good weight-loss affirmations CDs that do not require relaxation?



  1. Per:

    It is easier to work and do stuff when you are happy.
    Happiness is the theoretical consequence of positive thinking;
    thinking that you’re not gonna make it is very demotivational.

  2. mendel:

    Mmhh, I seem to not have happened upon those books that treat positive affirmation as fairy tale wishing. It’s not called “hopeful wishing” for a reason. You’re allowed to think about what you want to affirm, and you’re supposed to use your mind to reach the goals you’ve set.

    Positive affirmation helps people who feel hopeless and defeated – maybe not even generally, but only in one area. Setting up an affirmation requires thinking about your goals, without calling it a goal, which avoids the mental penalty you incur if you don’t reach it (or if you haven’t reached it yet, you lazy slob). It helps regain hope in an area where you may have lost it, which is probably why some authors stress you should use it for something you think impossible. Sure, I’m not the only person in the competition, so there’s no guarantee I will win, but that’s no reason to lose hope and not want to win (though for some people, it is).

    If you remind yourself every morning (or maybe more times during the day) that your goal is to lose weight, this has two effects: your rational mind is more aware of it and figures it into decisions you make (which book to read next, what food to buy, etc.), and also your subconscious mind gets primed each time with that goal and helps shove important observations or thoughts into your conscious mind that it might not have otherwise done, thus making you see opportunities you might otherwise have missed.

    I don’t think there’s any magic involved, that lying down is going to help you any or that CDs will provide you with anything different than you can provide on your own, though if you look up to external authority, you might profit from getting told to lose weight by a CD.

    So I guess the upshot is I believe that positive affirmation does work, that it doesn’t work miracles, and that it doesn’t require tons of literature and CDs to implement.

    I also believe positive affirmation is closely related to autosuggestion, the wikipedia article on which is quite interesting. (By the way, it is a fallacy to believe that placebos don’t work.) It also mentions autogenic training, which does indeed require you to lie down and relax; as it is somewhat more accepted as a psychological technique, this may be what your weight loss CDs are going for. I’ve been told that it is possible to get into an autogenic relaxation state while driving, but that beginners probably can’t.

    Anyway, thanks for another thought-inspiring blog post!

  3. Faibsz:

    Чтобы не есть сладости я стал читать состав продукта в магазине и представлять что меня обманывают – на полке вместо пирожного и шоколада жир, сахар и пр. Сразу пропадает желание покупать. Попробуйте – может вам тоже поможет


  4. Alice:

    Perhaps your body is larger because your brain needed more room (this is joke). I think you are one of the most brilliant women in America today. Despite how unhealthy you feel your body is, your brain is one of the healthiest in this country. Do not worry. If you can win the IMO, you can lose weight. Just subtract.

  5. Marcial Fonseca:

    I think the clue is to think positively on something that is available. It’s clear that if I am black; I cannot become white; but if I do not speak russian, I can learn it.
    Marcial Fonseca

  6. fibonicci:

    Happiness and positive thinking is key of success.

  7. Tanya Khovanova:

    Alice, thanks for making me laugh.

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