One of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century was summed up in the title of Norman Vincent Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952. “It is of practical value to learn to like yourself. Since you must spend so much time with yourself you might as well get some satisfaction out of the relationship,” Peale is quoted as saying. Now some Canadian researchers are saying it doesn’t work — for the people who need it most.

Professor Joanne Wood and colleagues from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, recruited a bunch of undergraduates and identified them as low or high in self-esteem. Then they were asked to repeat, “I am a loveable person,” every time a doorbell rang. When the researchers checked their mood they found that people already high in self-esteem felt better than people who didn’t repeat the statement, but those low in self-esteem felt worse.

"We think that [happened] because for the low self-esteem person it might elicit the opposite thought. So if I say to myself, 'I'm a lovable person and I'm low in self-esteem', I may start to think 'No, I'm not, and here are the ways in which I'm not a lovable person'. And then those kinds of thoughts could grow to overwhelm the positive self-esteem."

Hmmm. Like, “If I need to tell myself this, it is probably not true.” Anyway, says Professor Wood, the study may be reassuring for folks who have found that just positive thinking doesn’t work. "I think this tells them they're not alone in this frustration. That they can't expect a simple-minded statement that doesn't feel right to them would have a positive effect."

Sydney psychologist Gerardine Robinson agrees that getting people to say positive things to themselves doesn’t work. "If you're feeling down, and I say 20 things to you and only one of them is negative, which one are you going to remember? So you see, the way you feel can influence the way you think”.

Instead, she teaches people to “visualise themselves moving from a helpless mode into a competent mode. When we're in a competent mode we can grow, we're creative, we can think of multiple solutions to problems, we can be nurturing and healing of ourselves and others, and be compassionate," she said.

“It's a little bit like the AA axiom 'fake it til you make it'. So if you can teach a client to act as if they're in a competent mode, to imagine themselves in a competent mode, and how they would behave and think. So that's actually changing their behaviour."

Peale’s recipe for optimism had a religious basis — he was a preacher — and that could be one reason it appealed to people in the mid-twentieth century. Even with religious faith, however, self-esteem would be elusive unless a person experienced being loved by another (other) human being(s). Which leads us back to the family, in the first place.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet