Emotional Health

Positive Thoughts About Negative Thinking

Ever since Dr. Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), one of the first self-help best-sellers, we have taken it for granted that people who have the ability to look on the bright side have an advantage. We have been led to believe that optimism is a valuable trait and, furthermore, that it has the power to influence success, happiness, and even health. In more recent years, Dr. Martin Seligman has created the science of “positive psychology,” publishing numerous articles and books, like Learned Optimism, that detail its importance. He asserts that you can train yourself to think in a more positive way, and has an institute devoted to his program at the University of Pennsylvania.

There is a lot of evidence supporting these ideas. It’s not, however, the panacea that some believe it is. Journalist Oliver Burkeman reported about a 2012 incident in which protégés of self-help guru Tony Robbins singed their feet trying to show they could walk on hot coals using a positive mindset. Even after having been literally burned, some of the participants attributed their injuries to having not been “positive” enough!

There is also a limit to how malleable we are on this dimension. Optimism/pessimism is one of the personality characteristics that is hard-wired. Research has shown that even after great success or terrible tragedies, we tend to revert to our usual mood level after a while. Some people are crankier than others, so to speak, and some people are able to roll with the punches.

In some way negative thinking may be useful. Burkeman writes:

“The Stoics recommended ‘the premeditation of evils,’ or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.”

Thinking positively doesn’t automatically do the trick for everyone, either. It’s very important to consider the context. People who have experienced miscarriages, for example, often report how it backfires when friends try to comfort them by assuring them that things will work out—they will eventually have another baby. They are missing the point of the current situation: their friend needs to mourn the baby she has just lost, who was a distinct individual to her, and talk about a “replacement” is unwelcome and even hurtful.

Another example of how optimism can backfire is “affirmations,” cheerful slogans designed to be motivational or inspiring—like “I am a lovable person!” “My life is filled with joy!” These kinds of statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse, according to psychologists at the University of Waterloo. They reported that “telling yourself you’re lovable is liable to provoke the grouchy internal counterargument that, really, you’re not.”

Sometimes people who are prone to negative thinking find that it keeps them from feeling upset or angry if things don’t turn out well. Relief can be sweet: “A study in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy found that 85 percent of the things we worry about end up having positive or neutral outcomes. Even when the outcome is negative, 79 percent of the time, the subjects felt they handled it better than they thought they would.”

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