There has been a great deal written since Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking about positivism, about its relationship to success, and about its relationship to mental health. And similarly negative thought has come in for castigation as related to failure, to poor human relations, and to poor mental health. 

Composition teachers often add that negativity in rhetorical expression is typically a loser. And golf pros often note that the best way to hit a tree in the center of the fairway from a tee 200 yards away is to tell yourself, “Do NOT hit that tree.”

There has been less emphasis on the peril of negativism in thought. Perhaps this is because the academic mind often has to consider things with significant negative implications, and academics are loath to castigate this inherently important part of their professions.

There seems then to be a need to teach students how to avoid those forms of negative thinking that don’t do them any good.

The simple answer

The simplest answer to the problem of negative thinking is to advise everyone to avoid negatives. Always say things in the positive. 

The answer is simple, but it is also questionable. 

Say that the basic idea is that someone is stupid, silly, or corrupt. Well, that says it all in quite positive terms. One could instead choose negativity and say that the person involved isn’t bright, isn’t wise, or isn’t honest. Is one form of statement really that much more noxious than the other?

The next-simplest answer

The next-simplest answer is never to say anything which isn’t complimentary. So one never gets around to saying that someone or something is stupid, silly, or corrupt. 

Unfortunately, that allows the stupid, silly, and corrupt to go on unchecked.


Traditionally, this next-simplest answer is often termed Pollyannaism, after a young person who always obeyed the rule of never handling the difficult and negative. Pollyannaism has often been berated in academe precisely because academe does not feel it is in a position to give inadequate things free passes to abound.

First Perils

So the first perils of negative thinking are that everyone is against it, but life seems to force us to consider the negative as well as the positive. 

Smallpox wouldn’t have found a cure if someone hadn’t been solidly against it, solidly negative about it.

Should we then all gladly submit to failure and mental illness? The quandary suggests that academe and others should make far more serious attempts to deal with questions of negativity in thought.