Psycho-Cybernetics: Timeless Happiness Wisdom That Works


— By Sandip Roy

Fiction survives longer than nonfiction.

A few of the most admired books from the sixties still going strong today:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  3. To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  4. The Fall of The House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
  5. A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
  6. The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich by William Shirer
  7. Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.

Notice, of those seven books above, the first five are fiction.

Books people keep buying for over fifty years are mostly fiction. If we take each generation lasting 25 years, then that’s two generations. Just look around — you’ll find the most-loved nonfiction of the Silent Generation didn’t cross over to the Generation X.

Now, on that list, the last two are nonfiction. It’s quite a marvel a nonfiction continues living and breathing through almost six decades of readers.

Who Do You See In The Mirror

Maxwell Maltz was an American cosmetic surgeon of another era. But rather than his surgical feats, the world remembers him for writing a self-help book that Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy borrow from. A book that’s counted among the 50 Best Self-Help classics of all time.

Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living out of Life in 1960 while he was still a practicing plastic surgeon.

The book fast became a bestseller. And it has never gone OUP (out of print) since it’s first publication. Walk into any respectable bookstore today, and you’ll find it on their shelves.

Psycho-Cybernetics asks ‘Who do you see in the mirror?’, and how can you improve your self-image. It talks about how we create our self-image, and how it affects our happiness and success.

  • What are you?
  • What type of a person are you, to yourself?
  • What stories do you narrate when you’re asked to answer who are you?

Those answers tell you who do you see in the mirror — your self-image. Your self-image is a picture of the person you are to yourself. This image holds all your beliefs based on your experiences, successes and failures.

Your self-image is a picture of the person you are to yourself. It holds all your beliefs based on your experiences, successes and failures. Click To Tweet

Now, that image can be generally positive, overtly negative, or anything in between; that’s not important. What’s important for you to know is that you keep acting according to the image you create of yourself.

So, if you think of yourself as a hapless failure, you act and behave in ways you’ll likely fail. And if you see yourself as a success, you keep finding ways to succeed, as Maltz pointed out.

Maltz explains it with an example from his friend’s life. His friend, Dr Alfred Adler, a time-honored psychiatrist and neurologist, and founder of the School of Individual Psychology, was poor at math in his school. Adler’s teacher believed he had no talent for the subject.

Adler accepted his teacher’s judgment of him as his self-image. As a result, he kept getting low grades in math. This filled his mind with a sense of inferiority complex.

Until one day, when his teacher put a complex equation on the board, and he suddenly understood how to solve it. This incident increased his confidence towards math.

This led him to break his cage, and finally change his image of himself.

Adler later worked on his most famous concept — inferiority complex — and argued how it plays a key role in shaping one’s personality.

Change The One In The Mirror

If you have a negative self-image, it comes from the negative beliefs you hold about yourself.

But notice this: your negative beliefs are not a result of your experiences. Your experiences are just events — they come with neither negativity nor positivity attached to them. What makes them positive or negative is how you interpret them. And the conclusions you draw from them, you falsely remember as facts. These become your beliefs.

Experiences ⇒ Conclusions ⇒ Beliefs ⇒ Self-image

The opposite is also true. By interpreting your experience in a positive light, you can have positive self-beliefs. You can do this by re-thinking out the whole experience in a rational and logical way.

And once you change your beliefs, you change your self-image.

Maltz writes, “You as a personality are simply not in competition with any other personality because there is not another person on the face of earth like you.”

The truth about you is this:
You are not inferior.
You are not superior.
You are simply “You”.

Maltz presents Psycho-Cybernetics as a new concept of how our brains work. He held the human brain works like a machine. Just like a machine, if there is positive feedback, the brain keeps doing what it has been doing. Only when there is negative feedback, the brain automatically changes its behavior and ‘corrects its course.’

Once you accomplish a correct or “successful response”, the brain stores it as a memory for future use. When you face a similar task again, your brain simply pulls out the memory and makes you go through the learned behavior. You do not think much about it this time, because your nervous system now acts as an automatic response mechanism that already has a set of instructions to carry out.

By applying psycho-cybernetics, we can better understand why and how humans behave the way they do.

One such insight is humans have a built-in mechanism for success. Maltz says, to activate this mechanism, you have to start with your imagination.

Your brain can’t tell the difference between imagined and real experience. As a result, it reacts according to what you believe or imagine to be true.

During the 1950s, research by Dr. Theodore Xenophon Barber at American University in Washington found that hypnotized patients could easily undergo surgery without anesthesia. This phenomenon of hypnosurgery takes a person to imagine they have received anesthesia and therefore will not feel any pain during the surgery. Once they believe it, their brains stop processing the pain signals from the nerves.

Humans may not be machines, but we can think of our mental processes as mechanized. By using cybernetic principles to understand this machine thinking, we can overcome negative ideas about ourselves, enhance our self-image and live a fulfilling, successful life.

So, once you train your brain to believe you can succeed, you start to see more successes coming your way.

The Whimpering Dogs

Curiously, Martin Seligman, Father of Modern Positive Psychology, reached a similar conclusion in his early research on “learned helplessness.” In a series of experiments he began in 1967, Seligman found when a dog is given repeated painful electric shocks while kept inside a closed box — from which they can not escape — the dog learns this “helplessness.”

Later, when these dogs receive similar shocks — but also provided with ways to escape the box — they simply stay there enduring the shocks. Even when they see a low-height partition in the box they can easily jump over, they do not escape.

Instead, these dogs act from their learned behavior, and lie down in their boxes whimpering helplessly. Their brains tell them that no matter what they do, they can not stop the shocks. So, believing they have no control over the situation, they remain in their box crying helplessly.

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response, that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.

learned helplessness

Big elephant – Small peg. Source: Psychology Spot

Seligman suggested in his seminal paper that such a learned behavior can be the cause of depression and other related mental illnesses.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Stress Management, researcher P. C. Henry wrote that people who perceive events as uncontrollable, they are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behavior. This caused them, for example, to neglect healthy habits as diet, exercise, and medical treatment.

In later experiments, Hammack and his team found increased serotonin activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) of brain plays a critical role in learned helplessness.

Seligman wrote about it his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. In that, he writes:

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.


 I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable.

Maltzing Into Happiness

Most of us think of happiness in terms of the future goals. Which is the wrong approach.

We think we’ll be happy once we get a new partner, or a better job, or a bigger home. By doing that, we are tying our happiness to a future goal. But happiness is something that must be practiced in the present.

If we lose our happiness when the driver behind us honks like a maniac, it’s because we choose to react to it with annoyance and frustration. We can, instead, notice that his honking is just honking — and we may respond in a better way to it without losing our cool.

He can push the horn buttons, but he can’t push your buttons unless you allow him to.

Thomas Alva Edison provides a good example in Maltz’ book. Edison once lost his laboratory in a fire. Unfortunately, he had no insurance on his multi-million dollar lab against fire mishaps. As he stood watching the fire engulf all his work, he did this: he decided he’ll start rebuilding his lab the first thing next day. Edison, thus, avoided the unhappiness of mulling over an irretrievable loss.

Happiness is, after all, an internal feeling. It is a product of your thoughts and the attitudes you hold about your world and the people in it.

Maltz says a few things about happiness which will find the positive psychologists of our day nod in agreement. For starters, he writes we think, perform, feel, and fare better when we are happy.

  • He mentions the Russian psychologist Kekcheyev’s finding when thinking pleasant thoughts, people could see better, taste, smell and hear better, and detect finer differences in touch.
  • Maltz writes Dr William Bates’ experiments found the eyesight improves as soon as the person is thinking pleasant thoughts, or watching pleasant scenes.
  • He writes about a research by Margaret Corbett who found when the subjects were thinking pleasant thoughts, their memory improves in significant amounts.
  • He talks about the Harvard psychologists who found there is a correlation between unhappiness and criminality. They found a majority of criminals came from unhappy homes, and had a history of unhappy relationships.
  • A ten-year long Yale study on frustration found, Maltz writes, much of our immorality and hostility towards others is caused by our own unhappiness.
  • He quotes Dr John A. Schindler who said “unhappiness is the sole cause of all psychosomatic illnesses, and the only cure is happiness.”
  • Maltz quotes William James, “The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, pulling, mumping mood, no matter what outward ills it may have been engendered?”
  • He also brings in Blaise Pascal, “We are never living, but only hoping to live; and, looking forward always to being happy, it is inevitable that we are never so.”

Final Words

Finally, save in your mind these words Maltz wrote:

One of the commonest causes of unhappiness among my patients is that they are attempting to live their lives on the deferred payment plan. They do not live, nor enjoy life now, but wait for some future event or occurrence. They will be happy when they get married, when they get a better job, when they get the children through college, when they have completed some task or won some victory.

Invariably, they are disappointed. Happiness is a mental habit, a mental attitude, and if it is not learned or practiced in the present, it is never experienced.

It cannot be made contingent upon solving some external problem. When one problem is solved, another appears to take its place. Life is a series of problems.

If you are to be happy at all, you must be happy – period! Not happy because of.

Remember, only you know what makes you really happy. Don’t let a false self-image decide that for you.

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