Saturday, March 19, 2022

Book Nook: Focused Positivity

 Psychological research has confirmed that we would all be happier and more successful if we could think more positively. Yet, as many of us are aware, thinking positively can be a challenge. Timed for International Day of Happiness (March 20), Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind (Rowman & Littlefield; ISBN: 9781538153284), from author John F. Tholen, Ph.D., presents a science-based program that makes positive thinking accessible. Cognitive therapy (CT) has become recognized as the “gold standard” of psychological treatments, and the most efficient form of CT is the focused positivity strategy. 

Over his 40-plus years in practice as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Tholen created thousands of messages to improve the self-talk of clients whose motivation and emotional well-being had been disrupted by excessive attention to dysfunctional thoughts—those that cause distress without motivating constructive action. After retiring in 2017, he began compiling and categorizing alternative thoughts that are functional—likely to inspire hope and self-assertion. The result is Focused Positivity, a user-friendly manual for overcoming counterproductive thought patterns to permit a more fulfilling life.

Focused Positivity  integrates psychological philosophy with research discoveries about the relationship among our thoughts, feelings and actions, as well as about assertiveness, relaxation, habit change and even the competition that occurs between the two sides of the brain. The book presents a unique set of easy-to-follow steps that can be accomplished in a few minutes each day. Dr. Tholen’s focused positivity strategy employs the closest thing we have to a “superpower”—our ability to shift the focus of our attention—to diminish anxiety, inspire self-assertion and gradually attain a more balanced view of our circumstances, capabilities and potential. 

You can learn more in this interview.

Why I Wrote Focused Positivity

In my nearly fifty years of training and practice of clinical psychology I learned several ideas that I believe could help a great many of us—especially when we become distressed by feelings of helplessness. One example is my belief that improving ourselves, our mood, and our lives usually involves finding good strategies. Many of us wrongly believe that we lack some essential ingredient required to accomplish our goals—traits such as willpower, self-discipline, intelligence, or even common sense. Research has shown, however, that these qualities we admire (or envy) in others are not something we either have or lack, but instead are the result of having discovered an effective strategy. And when it comes to feeling successful and enhancing peace of mind, the best strategy is focused positivity.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the only therapeutic method that has been proven effective by scientific research and Focused Positivity presents the essential elements of CBT in a straightforward manner that allows their application to any of our own lives. Mental health professionals have too often made psychological concepts unnecessarily complicated by introducing complicated and confusing terms. It sometimes seems that important ideas have been kept hidden—to be understood and discussed only among experts. Rather than facilitating change, concepts such as fixation, ego-dystonic, toxic script, assimilation of the unconscious, anhedonia, and transactional analysis make it more difficult—not easier—for many of us to solve problems. Focused Positivity presents a proven method of change in simple terms and with easy-to-follow instructions.

Dysfunctional Versus Functional Thoughts

The most complicated concept introduced in Focused Positivity is the difference between dysfunctional and functional thoughts—the idea that some thoughts tend to trigger negative emotions and inhibit our motivation (dysfunctional) whereas others (functional) are more likely to reassure us, inspire hope, or motivate constructive action.

Much of our distress and inhibition results from focusing excessive attention on automatic thoughts—the ideas that spontaneously pop into our minds—that are self-defeating. We can improve our emotional state and our motivation, therefore, by adopting a strategy that allows us to shift our attention to balanced and reasonable alternative ideas that are more likely to reassure and inspire hope. Our brains are full of conflicting motivations that often pull us in different directions. The goal of change efforts is to introduce ideas we have selected into our motivational mix in the hope of nudging ourselves in a direction that is for the better.

Although it seems that our emotions and motivations result directly from the events and circumstances we encounter, they are instead reactions to our self-talk—the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting whatever we experience. When our automatic thoughts are dysfunctional and allowed to linger unchallenged in the focus of our attention, our peace of mind is disrupted and we tend to become inhibited about asserting ourselves—even though dysfunctional ideas are almost always incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong. Our best chance of enhancing both our peace of mind and our outcomes in life is to construct—and shift our attention to—more balanced and reasonable (functional) alternative ideas that reassure, inspire hope, and motivate self-assertion. This is the four-step focused positivity strategy:


  1. Becoming mindful of our thoughts—recording and examining the ideas that occupy our minds when we are upset or inhibited,

  1. Identifying dysfunctional thoughts—those that cause distress without inspiring constructive action—that have become the focus of our attention and are disrupting our peace of mind,

  1. Constructing more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives that tend to inspire hope and assertive steps, and

  1. Systematically refocus our attention away from the dysfunctional thoughts and toward the functional alternatives.

Why Are Focus and Attention Important Elements of Positivity

The closest thing we have to a “superpower” is our ability at any moment to shift the focus of our attention from a dysfunctional thought more functional alternative. Although we have little power to make the world comply with our wishes, our capacity to refocus our attention empowers us to change our perspective and thereby enhancing our feelings and motivation.

Before we can change any unwanted behavior, we must first recognize its existence. Although it is often associated with a meditative technique for inducing relaxation, the term mindfulness simply means being aware of whatever is happening in our bodies and minds at the current moment. The first step in shifting our attention to more functional thoughts, therefore, is becoming mindful of the dysfunctional ideas we are attending to when we feel helpless. Once we recognize the dysfunctional thoughts we are focusing on, we can begin to construct more balanced and reasonable alternatives to replace them.

As it is best for us to attend to dysfunctional thoughts as little as possible, they are best recorded in a way that permits their destruction as soon as we have been able to generate functional alternatives. Functional alternatives, on the other hand, are best recorded in a way that we see them frequently, they can be reviewed whenever our mood or motivation needs boosting, or we discover another functional thought to add.

John F. Tholen, PhD, Retired Psychologist (Licensed from 1980-2017 by the state of California and Qualified Medical Evaluator for more than 20 years). Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2021) is available through all major book retailers (including, the publisher (, and at the website Dr. Tholen is available for interview and can be contacted at The book cover image should be found attached to this message. Below is a link to photos of Dr. Tholen:

Focused Positivity is the first self-help book based on what research has discovered about the connection between our thoughts and actions, our relationships with each other, habit change, relaxation, assertiveness, and even the competition between the two hemispheres of our brains. Nearly seventy years ago Norman Vincent Peale, a Christian Minister in Manhattan. Wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, which became one of the most popular self-help books of all time. Research has shown his premise to be correct: positive thinking enhances health, creativity, and even relationships. Peale’s book, however, is based on unconventional religious views and lacks an attainable method of change. In contrast, Focused Positivity presents a systematic strategy of improving our perspective that is accessible to everyone, regardless of background or faith.

Although it seems that our emotions and motivations result directly from the events and circumstances we encounter, they are instead reactions to our self-talk—the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting whatever we experience. The thoughts that automatically come into our minds are determined by a complex interaction between our inherited traits and our early life experience—neither of which is under our control. When that interplay has left us cynical about life or excessively self-critical, our spontaneous thoughts are often dysfunctional, causing distress without inspiring constructive steps. And when automatic dysfunctional thoughts are allowed to linger in the spotlight of our attention, our self-assertion becomes inhibited and our peace of mind is disrupted—even though these ideas are often incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong. We can improve both our outcomes and our state of mind by identifying—and shifting our attention to—reasonable alternative ideas that are more likely to inspire constructive action or hope. This is the focused positivity strategy.

Dr. Dale Jorgenson, Professor of Psychology Emeritus of Cal State Long Beach has described Focus Positivity as “a must-read for anyone who wants greater life success or peace of mind—or hopes to help others find the same.”

Enlightening and empowering, Focused Positivity  offers expert guidance and a proven action plan for overcoming self-defeating thoughts, improving self-confidence, attaining personal goals and enhancing peace of mind.

About the Author
John F. Tholen, Ph.D., is a cognitive psychologist with more than 40 years of experience helping clients shift the focus of their attention to achieve their goals, strengthen their relationships and feel better about themselves. For more information about the book, please visit

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