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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 01, 2009

The Power of Positive Thinking

By Mark Sisson
47 Comments

Are you realizing the full potential of your mind?

Now, before you recoil in horror from the New Agey guru-lingo that question probably sounded like, bear with me a minute. I was recently thumbing through one of my favorite books, Dr. Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief, and it got me considering the possibility that creative visualization and positive thinking can both play enormous roles in the context of the Primal Blueprint. Lipton’s book discusses the emerging science of gene expression (sound familiar?), including the very PB-friendly notion that our environment – our diet, our stress level, even our state of mind – controls our DNA, rather than the other way around. If that’s the case (and the science seems to be agreeing that it is), our thoughts, actions, and moods might play an even bigger role in our health and general wellness than previously thought.

We’ve all heard anecdotal accounts of and seen movies about people beating terrible diseases with the power of positive thought. Little kids in baseball caps and terminal wards who get better when their hero hits a couple home runs for them at the big game. Cancer cases where the chemotherapy and radiation treatment don’t seem to work, but the reintroduction of a former lost love does. Even Lance Armstrong attributes a ton of his success – and part of his survival – to positive thinking and optimism. And I don’t think anyone would deny that being generally glum, surly, and unconfident about life will generally result in unfavorable outcomes – but does that mean the opposite is necessarily true?

There’s definitely evidence that positive thinking can be protective. Take breast cancer, for example. While the biggest determinants are largely genetic and environmental (including Vitamin D blood levels) in nature, one study found that of 255 women with breast cancer, most had either suffered adverse life events, like divorce or the death of a loved one, or were likely to characterize their pre-cancer life as “unhappy.” The control group – 367 healthy, cancer-free women – tended to be happier. These results suggest that a person’s state of mind can affect their susceptibility to cancer, but it doesn’t mean thinking happy thoughts can replace treatment. In fact, an Australian study found that a patient’s mental well being had no effect on breast cancer survival or recurrence. It may be that thinking positively can help stave off the depression that often accompanies an illness, and it can even reduce the chance of developing breast cancer, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and it won’t miraculously destroy cancer cells.

One way in which positive thinking can absolutely, unequivocally improve health is via the reduction of stress. Stress and negative thoughts – the two go hand in hand. If there’s one, the other probably isn’t far off. There’s no way the banker who works fifteen hour days, never sees his family, and loses hair every time he showers is happy; he’s stressed out beyond belief, and the negative health effects are plain to see (and some, like increased heart attack risk, poor sleep habits, and stroke, are probably lurking beneath the surface). Being happier would most likely reduce a lot of his issues and kill the stress, but it’s not as simple as putting on a (fake) smile and thinking (fake) happy thoughts. He can’t just will himself into thinking positively. His positive thoughts need some basis in reality; otherwise, he’s just lying to himself. As long as he’s still amassing all that stress and working the same job without any behavioral changes, all the happy thoughts in the world aren’t going to change a thing.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that such “false” positive thinking can actually have a net negative effect. Merely repeating positive statements – regardless of whether or not they actually made sense or were applicable to a patient’s real mindset – wasn’t helpful to the subjects who already had low self-esteem. Those subjects who were already happy and confident found them helpful, but that was probably because the statements were just reinforcing what they already knew. The unhappy patients just got unhappier. Rather than filling them with newfound self-confidence, the superficial positive thinking just reminded them how terrible they felt. The happy people were telling the truth when they thought, “I am a lovable person,” because they believed it. When the unhappy people “thought” that, it amounted to a big lie, because they didn’t believe it. They may very well have actually been “lovable,” but it didn’t matter.

So what does this tell us about positive thinking? Is there any merit to it? Absolutely. Positive thought is essential to health and happiness, but you need to back it up with something substantial. Just going around with a silly smile on your face isn’t enough, unless you follow through with actual behavioral changes that reflect your optimism. Don’t think of happy thoughts as a panacea; think of them as a symptom of good living. Live well, eat well, move well, and you will be naturally happy. Also, thinking happy thoughts is a pretty reliable indicator that you’re doing it right and living well by the Ten Laws.

I’ll be touching on this topic again in the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how positive thinking plays (or doesn’t play) a role in your Primal lifestyle. Hit me up with a comment!

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38 Comments on "The Power of Positive Thinking"

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Griff
Griff
7 years 5 months ago
Completely neglecting any new-agey (e.g. The Secret – uhg) or even the religion influenced classic work of Norman Vincent Peale, I am a strong proponent of positive thinking. I believe that you mind is incapable of investigating all possible solutions unless you think positively in relation to a goal (e.g. it is possible and you can do it). Sometimes the solutions presented may not meet the stated goal, however, they may in fact exceed the stated goal. I see this in both my personal and business life (and it is well documented in the latter). I never assumed a project… Read more »
Adam
Adam
7 years 5 months ago

There is no question in my mind that a healthy, positive outlook on life is essential for a healthy body. I encourage everyone to read the fascinating book Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss. It provides remarkable evidence of how our internal world affects the health and well-being of our body. It’s so funny to me that our modern view supports the brain and the body as being separate entities. They’re not just connected (via that thing we call the neck, duh!) but are really two parts of the whole.

Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 5 months ago

Biology of Belief is a great book! So is Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert.

Interesting research about “false” positive thinking. I think one of the most effective ways to stay positive is to accept negative thoughts and reframe them into positive ones before they spiral out of control. There’s positivity to be had from any situation!

If you need a little help believing this, read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Also check out the video of Nick Vujicic that I included at the end of this article.

Greg at Live Fit
7 years 5 months ago

I believe in the power of persistence and positive thinking. But there’s a bit of the chicken and the egg here, too. For instance, I recently encountered an article that detailed how teens who believe they will die young tend to engage in riskier behaviors… Makes for a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 5 months ago

I forgot to say – I thought the example of Michael Jordan in Primal Blueprint was pretty interesting. It’s a bit of a stretch (no pun intended), but I believe that it’s possible. I wonder if it’s too late for the rest of us. 🙂

Diana Renata
7 years 5 months ago

I loved Biology of Belief. I read it some time ago and was delighted to hear it was one of Mark’s also. I highly recommend everybody read it.

Positive thinking absolutely helps determine the quality of your life. I just wish I could get my mother to realize that- lol. *sigh*

Holly
Holly
7 years 5 months ago

Believing that everything happens for a reason and finding the positive side in any situation is the only way I’ve gotten through certain bumps in my life. I highly believe positive thinking and the health of one’s body are intricately connected… just look at when people get sick the most! Often happens when they are stressed, unhappy, or feeling depressed.

Markus
Markus
7 years 5 months ago

While I think The Secret is mostly bunk I do think the ideas in What the Bleep Do We Know are right on. I recommend that along with some Eckhart Tolle and Yehuda Berg’s Kaballah work.

Ryan Robitaille
7 years 5 months ago

Not to mention, since we’re living in a world that’s so negative and pessimistic – I think that being an upbeat (but not naive) optimist helps personal problem solving skills tenfold. Instead of focusing all your energy on the problem at hand, its focused on finding a solution and then moving ahead.

Most of the depressive and unhappy people I know have issues that instead of attempting to solve – they just wallow in them.

“Worrying, doubting and stressing are like sitting in a rocking chair, it’ll give you something to do – but it won’t get you anywhere!”

: )

RG
7 years 5 months ago
I am a Clinical Psychologist and I work full-time with people with anxiety and mood disorders like generalised anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and depression. I am very informed by Evolutionary Psychology, and think the PB is an absolutely wonderful resource! Through experience I have found that when we seek to engage actively with our thoughts, to wrestle with them, or when we attempt to create artificially positive perspectives and clever alternatives – then we continue to suffer. Sometimes we even feel worse as a result of this probing, manipulation of our minds’ automatic thinking. From a primal point of view it… Read more »
zach
zach
7 years 4 months ago
Mark/RG, I have written you (Mark) previously about nutrition but this post hits home in another fashion. I am stressed out. Plain and simple. I seem to have this inherent negative outlook on everything. I am not confident, I over-analyze everything, I am cynical and the list goes on. I have always been that way. The best thing I have going for me, mentally, is I have a great sense of humor. I laugh A LOT. People say that all the time about themselves but with me it is true. If you met me you’d probably think, “Wow, that is… Read more »
Peggy
Peggy
7 years 4 months ago
Zach: If your job sucks, change as quick as possible. I’ve been unhappy @ work & it’s not worth it. I have taken huge cuts in pay in order to be appreciated & enjoy how I spend my day. The fact that you do NOT want to be slave to the pills says a lot about you! Hang In There! We have all been there in one form or another. I recently went through some rough crap & sunk to the lowest I had ever been. But I finally realized that I had some awesome friends/family who stuck by me… Read more »
Catalina
Catalina
7 years 4 months ago
Hi Zach, I’m sorry things are so tough. Going along with RG’s comment about Mindfulness books, I highly recommend Cheri Huber (Buddhist author). Her book There Is Nothing Wrong with You has great info about how our conditioned minds cause us to suffer. And all therapy doesn’t mean taking pills, so you might check out some good therapists in your area…do some research on a form of therapy called EMDR and see if you think it might be helpful. (It did me a world of good!) By the way, you should be very proud of all you are doing for… Read more »
zach
zach
7 years 4 months ago
Thank you to you all for commenting back! I really appreciate it and I have heeded your advice this past week. It certainly didn’t fix things perfectly as you could imagine however, merely “living in the moment” and taking in everything that is going on around me helped significantly. The most noticeable change was my roller coaster of happy-sad emotions seemed to have less dips and valleys. When I was able to maintain a positive state of mind that sensation lasted for a day or two versus the usual three or four mood swings in one day. On Wednesday I… Read more »
llolly
llolly
7 years 5 months ago

My data point of one is: I have many years of experience with negative thinking and have found that taking ~4k iu’s of D3 per day has “magically” made them almost non-existent. So are the happy people cancer free due to being happy or are they both happy and cancer free due to vit d (or other reason)?

On the other hand, I do believe that our brains tell us lots of “stories” that aren’t necessarily true and it’s helpful to know that if you can change that “story” you can “change your life”.

Wyatt
Wyatt
7 years 5 months ago

what he said…

Shine
7 years 5 months ago

When I find myself getting angry at little things, I am often reminded of that children’s book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” The degree of negativity with which we react to an event is generally dictated by preceding events rather than the event itself. Remembering this helps me remain objective and put things in perspective…or at least attempt to before I completely blow a gasket!

Miriam
Miriam
7 years 5 months ago

Great article Mark, I have done Mindfulness Mediation and this deals with negative thoughts and one of the best tools I learnt was when having a negative thought is to say to myself is this thought relevant right now? That has helped me control negative thinking and actually reduce my stress levels, another thing I learnt of when things get tough go and get a cup of tea, just walk away from the situation and gather my thoughts.

Oh and another thing I have found has worked really well…the primal diet! No longer fueling negative emotions with carbohydrates.

Ecala
Ecala
7 years 5 months ago

I was inspired.. just bought Biology of Belief.

Thanks for the recommendation everyone who mentioned it.

Chris
7 years 5 months ago

Loved this post mark. Excellent source of information I recently found that simply attracting positive things in my life and picturing my ideal body composition have made primal leaving even more ideal.

Jayne Landis
7 years 5 months ago
Interesting, but I’m not convinced by this data so far. Although foods and environment and circumstances can affect mood and stress levels, my own experience has been that some people seem predisposed to being more sensitive to things no matter what they do. People who are ‘happier’ most of their lives may be different chemically than people who are not and there is only so much they can do to feel better. Also, I have met a lot of content people who are, quite honestly, mildly sociopathic – things don’t bother them because they simply don’t feel as much about… Read more »
Marcus
Marcus
7 years 5 months ago

You’ve convinced me to try a little experiment.

I’m going to go for the next month without reading or watching any news to see what effect that has on my moods.

Grok didnt have pay TV and 24/7 news broadcasts.

thehova
thehova
7 years 5 months ago

“So what does this tell us about positive thinking? Is there any merit to it? Absolutely. Positive thought is essential to health and happiness, but you need to back it up with something substantial.”

Sounds exactly like “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. I recently learned about it in my psych. class. It’s a wildly successful form of therapy.

Donna
Donna
7 years 5 months ago

A good way to “stay” positive is to have friends who are positive!

There is so much power in your life when you just “believe” which comes “from” thinking positive,
good things just start happening!

Mr B
Mr B
7 years 5 months ago

“When the unhappy people “thought” that, it amounted to a big lie, because they didn’t believe it. They may very well have actually been “lovable,” but it didn’t matter.”

Speaking as someone who could accurately apply this to himself…how are is one supposed to change this? Or deal with it in such a way as to still live a productive life?

Rich
Rich
7 years 5 months ago

All,

‘Postive Thinking’? Huh? WTF?

There is absoluitely NO proof ‘positive thinking’ equals good health.

I like Mark. I like his website. But when he sways into psuedoscience, or woo, I’m disappointed. Let’s stick to science. ‘Postive thinking’ isn’t sneice. It’s absolute bullshit.

Yours in paleoness,

Rich

Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 5 months ago

Rich, I suggest you read Molecules of Emotion. Candace Pert discovered the opiate receptor and knows a thing or two about science.

Also, stress (negative thinking) is proven to provoke the stress response (release of cortisol, adrenaline, etc.) which is also proven to be damaging to your body in excess. Therefore, even if positive thinking does nothing more than prevent stress (and it does do more), then right there we know that positive thinking promotes good health.

Kremit
Kremit
7 years 5 months ago
I just recently started living the primal lifestyle, (ok, only about 60-70% so far, but its a HUGE step for me). I immediately noticed changes in almost everything about my life, and after reading this article i know why. Over the past few weeks i have been losing weight and feeling better about myself than i ever have in my life, and that has led to a ton of positive thinking. Seriously i have had an unbelievably great couple weeks at work, and for some reason i have been meeting women that actually seem interested in me. I owe it… Read more »
Chris - ZTF
7 years 5 months ago

It’s all in the mind as they say…. Honestly I have fund that you cannot force positive thoughts they will naturally come as you continue living life through good and bad whilst getting things done. As well as this a sense of contribution helps, I try to give myself away as much as possible by doing tasks for others and making people happy. This for me has worked to culminate positive thoughts most of the time 😉

Living the Primal lifestyle gets the brain chemistry right through which helps. Also make sure you get your EPA

Karin
Karin
7 years 5 months ago

Jayne: And the ironic thing is, these people you speak of, who often have trouble liking themselves, are often nice people to have around and OTHER people really like them. (Provided they aren’t all Eeyore-like). They don’t think they are nice enough or good enough so they are prone to over-compensating. People like them, whereas he over-confident are too pushy and self-centered. It’s kind of reversed.

Sheila
7 years 5 months ago

I enjoyed this article. I think reframing negative thoughts can be very effective in becoming more healthy positive thinkers. There are always a number of ways to look at things. I fing choosing the thoughts that bring the most positive outcome, a good technique to practice.

Patri Friedman
Patri Friedman
7 years 4 months ago
Without any specific to say about positive thinking, this is a classic mixup of correlation vs. causation: “While the biggest determinants are largely genetic and environmental (including Vitamin D blood levels) in nature, one study found that of 255 women with breast cancer, most had either suffered adverse life events, like divorce or the death of a loved one, or were likely to characterize their pre-cancer life as “unhappy.” The control group – 367 healthy, cancer-free women – tended to be happier. These results suggest that a person’s state of mind can affect their susceptibility to cancer, but it doesn’t… Read more »
Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 4 months ago
IMO there’s an interplay between the endocrine system and neurotransmitters which works both ways over the hypothalamic-pituitary axis. There’s a lot of evidence that depression (the physical condition, not just feeling a little pissed) negatively affects the immune system, for example. There’s less evidence that actual positive thoughts benefit the system over just non-negative thoughts, but it can’t hurt to try. I’ve forwarded this to a friend who has leukemia and another cancer concurrently. OK he is taking some very heavy duty meds, and is also doing as much as he can through dietary means to reduce inflammation, control his… Read more »
Brian
7 years 4 months ago

This is a fascinating topic that I really relate to. Thank you for your in depth and very thorough essay. My wife and I had a discussion on this topic just a couple days ago; it’s great to get citations and references on many of the things that we take for granted.

Your post actually inspired a lengthy related post on my blog. I referenced and quoted a small portion of this post to credit your input; just thought you’d like to know. 🙂

Matt Forrester
Matt Forrester
6 years 8 months ago
Well this is an older post so probably no one will ever read this but this article is very true. I am not some new age hippy or even close. I spent 8 years in the Army and fought in Iraq for almost 2 years. To put it lightly my job was about as stressful as any human could have. Never knowing what is behind the door you’re about to kick in, taking someone’s life, etc. We did things none of us wanted to do but had to. I lived with those nightmares and memories for years. They became a… Read more »
Jay Postma
5 years 8 months ago
Hi Mark, I am a chiropractor specialized in functional neurology. Just finished reading your book and I have already posted your info all over the place as I think you are right on the money! Wanted to add Joe Dispenza’s book ‘Evolve your brain’ the science of changing your mind. Have seen him several times at chiropractic seminars and he is really putting people in touch with the quantum field! He describes how you can use positive thinking in a way that can effect your future and I have countless examples of this coming into realisation! Good stuff… Jay
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