We’ve all watched L Frank Baum’s seminal epic The Wizard of Oz as kids, and fallen in love with Dorothy’s three companions who each desired an object they believed they didn’t possess.
The Tin Man wanted a brain, the Scarecrow wanted a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wanted courage. So they hopped along the Yellow Brick Road holding Dorothy’s hand, hoping to wangle a boon each out of the Wizard of Oz and live the rest of their lives fulfilled.
Little did they know that in order to get what they wanted, all they had to do was pretend that they had it. This not-so-new psychological phenomenon is called “positive action” and it’s the daddy of positive thinking, that cornerstone of every self-help guru’s multi-million dollar empire.
While positive thought focuses only on what goes on inside the brain, positive action involves projecting those thoughts into the reality plane and pretending they are true. Psychotherapist Dr Reema Shah describes positive action as “a series of behaviours that you put yourself through to achieve a predetermined course.”
Be the way you really want to feel
Say for example, you’re a procrastinator. Positive thinking will be telling yourself that you’re not a procrastinator. Positive action will be getting your backside off the couch and starting that project you’ve been putting off for so long. Pretend you’re the most punctual and disciplined person in the world and act like it; it will yield actual results.
Some experts choose to refer to this theory as the “As if” theory - in which you behave as if what you’ve imagined is true. Shah, is a proponent of the theory that she says came from American psychiatrists George Kelly and William James, and German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, all of whom believe that if actions can follow feelings, the other way round is also true.
“If you pose certain behaviour for a period of time, your brain chemistry changes,” Shah says. “By initiating certain behaviours, we can influence the brain to receive the happiness, wellness, motivational chemicals rather than the sombre, anxiety-provoking chemicals.”
Significantly higher levels of the “wellness and motivational chemicals” such as adrenaline, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are found in the brain and body when we initiate positive behaviour, elevating our mood to a corresponding place. “The application of the ‘as if’ theory is actually like stage acting,” Shah says. “You act out a role, and before you know it, you actually merge into it.”
Dr Varkha Chulani, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, however, advises against placing all your eggs in the “as if” basket. “Simply changing behaviour will be difficult for most,” Chulani says. “It’s not as easy as it sounds.” She says that the behaviour should be reinforced by a reward so that it can be called successful. Once it’s successful, it will be repeated.
Many a times, this reward can only be left to chance, indirectly resting the success of the theory itself on chance. Taking the procrastination example ahead, if you finished your project and say, got a pat on the back from your boss, you’ll continue to honour your deadlines. If you didn’t get an acknowledgement, perhaps you’ll think that the effort is not worth it, and go back to your lazybones ways.
“It’s not necessarily one of the best ways to deal with life,” Chulani says. “It is often superficial, since the attitude behind the behaviour is not touched upon at all.” Opposing viewpoints aside, many studies and years of research show that the “as if” theory can be applied in many aspects of life, with moderate to stupendous results.
From your love life, to physical and spiritual well-being, to characters in a fantasy we grew up on, positive action can be used to fix it all. So go on, give it a whirl.
Put it to Practice
Dr Shah talks about some ways you can apply the “As if” theory in real life:
1 Situation: Priya feels rushed for time —there are too many items on her to-do list and too few hours. She’s hassled and hurried, and sure that the list will never end. Solution: Priya needs to slow down and act like she has all the time in the world, and she’ll soon find herself relaxing. No longer under stress, all her resources will come together and she will be able to prioritise, delegate and delete tasks
2 Situation: Dinesh can’t do more than 20 push-ups but he wants to lose weight very badly. Solution: Dinesh should start thinking he is invincible, like his favourite movie star. The more he believes it, the harder he will push himself, and the more he’ll enjoy exercise.
3 Situation: Pooja and Ravi have been together for 13 years, and have fallen into a life of routine and boredom. They wonder if they still love each other and long for excitement, but don’t feel it. Solution: They should go on a pretend first date and get to know each other all over again. They could even pretend to be strangers to get things going.
4 Situation: Meera is 20 kilos overweight, but just can’t bring herself to diet. Solution: She needs to start eating with the hand she doesn’t usually use to eat. For example, if she is right-handed, she should eat with her left hand. That way, her actions aren’t just happening without thought — they’re deliberate, and she can control them better.
5 Situation: Rohan is stuck at work for hours after everyone has left, feeling miserable. It’s a one-way street to self-pity from there. Solution: Rohan needs to plaster a smile on his face, put on some music, pretend like he’s enjoying yourself, and pretty soon it will be true.
• The application of the ‘as if’ theory is like stage acting