Yet another misconception about mindfulness is that it does not differ from other self-help concepts such as the Law of Attraction and positive thinking, which most notably gained mainstream popularity as a result of the book The Secret. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that many individuals embarking on a mindfulness meditation journey assume that being mindful means always thinking positively and ignoring negative thoughts and emotions, while meditation revolves around clearing your mind of all emotions and letting go of all negative thoughts. This, however, is a misconception rooted in a misunderstanding of where mindfulness stems from and what it embodies. This blog post will attempt to shed some light on the differences and similarities between mindfulness and positive thinking. It will not, however, claim that any one approach is better than another, but rather simply highlight their distinction.
Mindfulness is generally defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Other scientists have highlighted attention and awareness as the two main skills that mindfulness practice cultivates (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Positive thinking, on the other hand, is usually conceptualised as a mental attitude that focuses only on thoughts and feelings that are positive. It can be used as a coping strategy, a mental adjustment to “bad” experiences, or even as a belief that positive thoughts will bring about positive consequences (e.g., Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 2000). Already in these definitions, some differences between mindfulness and positive thinking seemingly emerge.
Teachers of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation often emphasize the power of the present moment. In fact, this is the only moment in which we can exist, and is thus the only important moment to fully appreciate and hold in awareness. This moment, however, can be considered a positive experience, a negative experience, or a neutral experience, and anything in between. Those that practice mindfulness are encouraged to not judge the present moment as either positive or negative, but to simply be aware of it, accept it, and be in it. In this way, attachment to either “good” or “bad” experiences, feelings or thoughts is discouraged, for every moment is fleeting and is worthy of attention in the now.
In practice, this can be seen in mindfulness meditation. While meditating, our minds tend to wander and fixate on thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, as well as events from the past, present and future. Indeed, our minds seem perhaps easier drawn to negative thoughts (e.g., stressful to-do lists, longing for a better future, thinking about what you could have differently in the past, remembering an awkward encounter, or simply feeling bored, restless, tired, hungry or worried while meditating). When this does happen, we must remember to become aware and accepting of the thoughts that we produce, so that we can let them go and return our focus to the now. This is equally true for both bad thoughts and good thoughts.
Having shed some light on the main difference between mindfulness and positive thinking, it is of equal importance to highlight the two main similarities between them as well – gratitude and the Law of Attraction. Gratitude is highlighted as important in both practices and is a relatively simple concept to understand. Gratitude allows you to be grateful for what you do have, instead of desire what you do not have, and has been shown to correlate with greater levels of happiness and improved mental health in the general population (e.g., Froh, Bono, & Emmons, 2010).
The Law of Attraction, on the other hand, is a little bit more complicated. The Law of Attraction as used within the positive thinking practice suggests that focusing on positive thoughts will bring about positive experiences, while focusing on negative thoughts will bring about negative experiences. Within Buddhism, this may sound similar to Karma, but there are still rather important differences to be considered. A detailed description of Buddhist teachings is beyond the scope of this post (and the knowledge of the author!), but I will briefly introduce Karma and how it is used in mindfulness practice.
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action”, and posits that there is a direct relationship between cause and effect or actions and reactions (Gabriel Shaw). In this sense, good actions will bring about a positive effect, while negative actions will have a bad effect. Thus, there is an emphasis on positive actions, rather than positive thoughts, as is the case for the Law of Attraction. Additionally, the Law of Attraction supposes that “like attracts like”, meaning that if you for instance want to become rich, you must think prosperous thoughts, visualise yourself being rich, and be grateful for the money you do have to attract more money to your life. Karma, on the other hand, does not concern itself with such gain from the universe, and rather encourages gratefulness, kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, which is likely to reward individuals who practice these concepts in alternative ways.
In conclusion, while mindfulness and positive thinking do share certain concepts and ideas (e.g., gratefulness), they are also different in various ways and must be distinguished as such. To truly understand mindfulness, it is beneficial to remember where it has come from and how it has developed until today. And it doesn’t hurt to practice mindfulness meditation to see this distinction for yourself!