Dr. Phil Discusses the Power of Positive Thinking

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Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, the Chief Medical Officer of WebMD. The power of positive thinking-- does it really work? Can you just wish yourself to a better job, more money, a trimmer waistline?

There's a process called manifestation-- it's very popular on TikTok right now-- that's promoting this way of thinking. It involves envisioning and then positively affirming a desired outcome, whether that's a new relationship, a promotion, or inner peace.

But is there any data to support it? Joining me to discuss is my good friend, Dr. Phil McGraw. Dr. Phil, it's nice to see you.

Well, thank you for having me. And it's fun to talk about something really positive, right?

Yeah. Well, I'm going to try to stay positive. So with that, you and I wrote about this concept in our monthly column on mental health for USA Today. And Phil, I have to ask you. Because the pushback is, OK. If positive thinking was all you need to do, we would all have a great job, a great life, look spectacular.

And that's not the case. And you have an important line in it that you talked about to me previously. And you said, and I want to quote, "Manifestation is not a substitute for action."

Well, that's exactly right. And it's like a whole lot of things. It takes a lot of moving parts to get to an outcome, to get to a solution, to get to a desired result.

And I think there are a couple of things that I want to say about that. Clearly, having a good attitude, having a positive outlook, believing in yourself and believing that something is doable and attainable, is really a necessary component. It's necessary, but it's not sufficient.

You have to have that positive belief. You have to lean into something and really commit, be all in, if you're going to get somewhere. But that's not enough.

You also have to have a good plan. You have to have accountability to stay with that plan. The universe rewards action. You've got to put one foot in front of the other. You've got to put in the sweat equity and work hard on something.

And those who believe that all I got to do is think it and it shall be are going to be left right where they started, because that's not enough.

Do you think values are misaligned? And I don't want to focus on younger populations. But sometimes, there's this idea that you put in a certain amount of work. And then you should reap reward. And if you don't, then there's something wrong with the system.

So how do you align the values? You talk about the strategy, putting in work. You have a plan. But even with all that, some people may not reach the success that they want for themselves.

Well, we jokingly said in the article, you have to have-- sort of jokingly-- you have to have realistic goals, right? You and I can't decide that we want to be NBA stars. Because that's not going to happen, for different reasons.

But either way, no matter how bad we want, it no matter how much we envision it, no matter how much clarity we have in our vision, the chances of that happening are something less than zero, I would suspect.

So number one, you have to be realistic. And I've often said, the difference between winners and losers is winners do things losers don't want to do. And one thing winners do is, they do it until. They don't work on it for a month. They don't work on it for six months. They don't work on it for a year. They work on it until.

And if it takes two years, three years, four years, five years, they stay with it until they get what they want. It's not a matter of how long did you work? You work on it until, until you get what you want.

It's kind of like this glass half empty or half full. And I know you've come into contact with, I'm sure, plenty of patients, maybe even some loved ones that might be, the glass is half empty instead of half full.

So how do you help people change that attitude, to use manifestation, to have that positive affirmation? Because some people just don't have that mindset. So Dr. Phil, how do we get them there?

You know, John, that is such a good question. Because I will tell you that there is empirical data that says there are people that suffer from low self-esteem, a compromised self-image, that if you tell them positive things, if they use affirmations, they say things to themselves, it actually creates pain and anxiety for them, because they don't believe it.

So if they have a really low self-esteem, and so they start making positive affirmations to themselves, it creates a conflict, a contrast, where they say, oh, that's just pointing out-- that's a lie. That's not true.

And it causes them to feel worse. There's so much dissonance, they feel worse. So if you're someone that's very negative about who you are, and all of this positive from other people, from your parents or your friends, they don't want to hear it. Because it's such a contrast to what they really believe that it's painful for them to hear that.

So you have to get yourself in a position where you at least are willing to believe the positive affirmations, or they won't have a positive effect. They will have a paradoxical negative effect on you.

You kind of played on words in the editorial, where we talked about, you said, we need to go from learned helplessness, a concept very common in psychology, to learned optimism. And that's kind of what you're referencing. But how do we get people to learn to be optimistic?

To me, it's a stepwise sort of thing. And you pointed out in the article that there is an effect to having an optimistic mindset, that it does cause you to have a different chemistry. It does impact your health. It does impact how you relate and respond to chronic disease, for example.

And I thought that was a great acknowledgment of how powerful this can be. And I think you have to do it in a stepwise fashion, where you get someone to start out by saying, OK.

Look, I need to find those core qualities in myself that I can acknowledge and embrace. I am a decent human being. I am loyal to my friends. I am a person that shows up every day. I have loyalty. I have dependency. I have-- you have to get people to begin to acknowledge the positive things about themselves that they can then build on and say, OK. With those traits and characteristics, I can believe that I can step to the next level.

But they have to acknowledge that they are worthy of what they want, or they'll never be able to step up and claim it. And if they don't have feelings of worth, if they don't believe that they're worthy of what they're trying to be optimistic about, they will never claim that optimism. They'll never lean into it enough to get it. So it begins with that self-worth.

And partly, that can be predicated upon, are they having reasonable goals, goals that are ones that they can attain? Also surrounding by a support system.

I have to ask, because you are wildly successful. I know a little bit about your background. Have you always been a glass half full person, your entire life?

Well, I would say this. I've always been a realist and believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. And it is true. I grew up very poor, and I didn't have a lot of things that some of my peers had.

But I had to acknowledge that I was healthy, and that I had certain intellectual abilities. And I thought, I don't have the right to squander these. I don't have the right to lay around and just watch TV or get into drugs or whatever. I don't have the right to do that.

Because I would look at some people that, despite their best efforts, they would never be able to really attain certain levels or certain heights, despite their best efforts. And I thought, what would those people give to have some of the innate abilities that others are blessed with? And when you have those things, you have a duty to maximize that.

And to that extent, I've always been a glass half full person, saying, you've been given certain traits and abilities. What are you going to do with it? And I would call on myself to step up and do that.

And I would challenge people to say, are you in good health? Do you have a clear mind? Are you in a situation where you have freedom of choice? And if you have those things, then say, what can I do with this? That's the half full part of it.

It isn't that you have wealth or great education. It's just, do you have that freedom of choice and some skills and abilities to use?

And as you point out, positive thinking is important. And we do want to encourage that. And that's something that people can learn. But it's not doing.

But as you point out, doing we'll start with that positive thinking. And we don't always quite frame it that way.

And if you have that positive thinking, all of those skills and abilities that you may have, all those opportunities, you're going to be more cognitively efficient with a positive attitude.

There is research that says we operate at a higher intellectual efficiency with a positive attitude than if we don't, just as you point out that people fare better in their fight against chronic disease if they have optimism, if they have a positive attitude.

And it is the same thing in terms of our performance and cognitive performance. If we have a positive attitude, I think it's probably because we don't have a competing internal dialogue telling us we're not good enough. We're not going to do well.

We don't have that distraction. So we're able to focus more effectively when we don't have a competing internal dialogue.

That's right, positive thinking and action. Well, thank you, Dr. Phil.

Dr. Whyte, thank you for having me. I look forward to talking to you again soon.