Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

New Ways to Look at Positive Thinking & Acting

Consider the rationale (and studies) behind life-changing tips.

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Always a bit skeptical about self-help books that are going to show me how to change my life, I read a recent one with some interest. The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life, is by Richard Wiseman, author of four bestselling books, and the holder of Britain's only professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology.

Although he used to be a professional magician, Wiseman aims to present research and case studies to make his points seem credible, not magical. The crux of his advice is to use positive action, not simply positive thinking. Here's what he means by that.

Behavior creates thoughts and feelings. He's not saying that what you think or feel can change the external world, but rather that acting as though you have a quality can make it so that you actually have that quality. For instance, smile and you'll become measurably happier. Put a spring into your step and you'll feel younger. And so on.

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We would be wise to be skeptical of some of Wiseman's studies. For instance, using 100 volunteers, he held a speed-dating night where some of the participants were told to act as though they were already in love by gazing into each other's eyes and holding hands. Those who did those things were more than twice as likely (45% vs. 20%) to want to see each other again.

But is that actually "behaving as though you're in love," or is it merely getting up close in ways most people wouldn't do in a three-minute interaction? Kissing a stranger might make you believe you like that person a lot more than you did before you kissed him or her. An upsurge of hormones might explain that. (That doesn't rule out the accuracy of Wiseman's claims, however.)

Some of Wiseman's suggestions for changing your behaviors to make progress toward your goals seem silly, regardless of studies cited. Cross your arms to increase your persistence at a task? Wash your hands or take a shower to diminish your sense of guilt? 

There is a lot more to Wiseman's book, and I don't mean to shortchange his wealth of citations. It's just that calling a method "radical" raises my doubts. Some of his suggestions do make a lot of sense, and I'll share three quickies.

Three Easy Actions to Try:

  • Use your non-dominant hand to eat. As that is unusual for you, it takes more attention, and thus you will not eat mindlessly and too much.
  • Spend a few minutes at a task you are avoiding, even if you have to "act as if" you're interested. After that, you will feel the need to continue (and finish) the job.
  • When you open up to someone, you feel more attracted to him or her. Invite intimate chat while on a date by asking meaningful questions.


Watch Wiseman talk about a previous book: www.youtube.com/user/Quirkology

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry   (Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape)

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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