Bad Thoughts Can’t Make You Sick! Or can they?

I’ve written about the positive thinking movement before. Your thoughts don’t have magical powers. You can’t just wish for wealth and thinking bad thoughts won’t bring bad things to you. That’s just a bunch of wooey - hooey.

 Aeon Magazine makes an excellent case for abandoning the woo related ideas that bad thoughts can make you sick – see:

First, there is no good evidence that good thoughts or bad thoughts influence our health. There are problems with the research and with self reporting. Confounding of health and happiness is harmful to those who aren’t healthy and/or happy as it blames them for their physical problems and treats happiness as if it is a choice!  In short, it’s a form of victim blaming that does nothing to help people overcome their illnesses or become happier.

This isn’t to say that your brain doesn’t influence your health. Your brain is part of your body and your health effects the brain and the brain effects your health. Depression is a physical illness, not something people “choose.” And yes, having depression does cause certain sorts of negative thoughts to occur. But that doesn’t imply causation. In fact figuring out where causation lies is extremely difficult. There really isn’t a brain body divide. It’s all just body.

This doesn’t mean that your thoughts don’t matter. They do. They have a tremendous impact on your ability to function, make rational decisions and more. It’s just that you might not have as much control of them as you would like and it’s possible your physical illness is causing your negative thoughts and not the other way round.


  1. What logic links these two sentences: "And yes, having depression does cause certain sorts of negative thoughts to occur. But that doesn’t imply causation."? There's no causation involved when depression causes negative thoughts?

    Are you saying that practicing loving vs. blame-filled thoughts (rehearsing these thoughts, for example through LKM [loving-kindness meditation] practices) can produce changes in oxytocin vs. cortisol production, causing such outcomes as increases or decreases in stress affecting heart health?

  2. You are of course correct. My good. I was trying to get to the central point that bad thoughts don't make us sick, but getting sick may indeed cause us to think bad thoughts. So - the causation I was referring to wasn't that there wasn't causation - but that the causation is backward in the public imagination when it comes to the topic of positive thinking in it's woo state.

  3. And yes - thoughts and sickness, sickness and health - inter-related - but not magical.


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