Debunking the myth – Why positive thinking can be perilous

“You should be more positive, think happy thoughts!”

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If I had a dollar every time someone shoves that phrase at my face, I’m positive (*snicker*) I would spend my days rolling around in my vast fortune and grow fat from eating expensive caviar.

Exaggerations aside, a lot of us are pretty much socialized to revere and advocate the act of positive thinking. Nearly two decades ago, Martin Seligman spearheaded the founding of positive psychology, a new area in psychology that precipitated an eruption of research into the various aspects of happiness, cheerfulness and optimism. The goal of the positive psychology movement was to bring focus to the cheery, non-pathological side of human mental functioning, to foster growth through the reframing of one’s negative thoughts into more positive ones.

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And so, the West was suddenly engulfed in a maelstrom of positivity, with self-help books on positive thinking flooding the shelves of every bookstore (The Secret, anyone?). Positive thinking had transformed into a cultural phenomenon seemingly overnight, from a faint whisper to a clarion voice that lionized an optimistic outlook and denounced all forms of pessimism. Nowadays, we are often told by the media, various books and even our friends that all we need to succeed in life is to visualize ourselves being successful, that they key to achieving our goals is to attract them by aligning our thoughts in a more positive frame, and that the solution to eliminating our sad feelings is simply to replace them with happy, cheery thoughts. Suffice to say, it would seem that positive thinking does bring about a lot of benefits for us, so what is the issue here?

The real problem can be seen when research comes in, prowling in like a lithe jungle cat to claw away at the misconceptions that we have about positive thinking. You see, as widespread and popular as the notion of positive visualizations and affirmations are, researchers here and there have garnered evidence to warrant a certain degree of skepticism towards positive thinking. For example, one would imagine that indulging in positive fantasies about the future would lead to greater motivation and performance, yes? Interestingly though, one study experimentally induced positive fantasizing in one group and neutral fantasizing in another, and found that the group that thought positively about their future were lackluster in their drive towards achievement. The researchers surmised that positive fantasy detracted one’s motivation because it drains them of the will and energy to push oneself. After all, if you convinced yourself in your mind that you had already succeeded, why bother trying in real life? Similarly, another line of study seemed to suggest that carrying out favorable fantasies about achieving one’s dream career actually translated into reduced effort and performance. These studies and more draw attention to the fact that positive thinking, as wonderful as it seems, often prove to be ineffective in practice.

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Now you’re probably thinking, what now? Am I supposed to trudge dourly through life like a sourpuss? The key takeaway here isn’t to completely do away with positive thinking, but to understand its limits and complement its weaknesses with other strategies. For example, some psychologists draw the distinction between realistic optimism and unrealistic optimism. The former takes into account the relevant challenges that one my face, while the latter blindly turns away from them. This suggests the need to cultivate an optimism that is grounded in reality, to view life through rose-tinted lenses while acknowledging the thorns that may come about, to balance the light of optimism and the darkness that often pervades our reality. Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of the book, Rethinking Positive Thiking, incorporates the idea of realistic optimism in her invented technique called mental contrasting. This particular technique involves thinking about a particular goal and visualizing it in a positive manner, and then contrasting that with the visualization of the various obstacles and challenges that are directly relevant to that goal. The hybrid approach is backed by substantial empirical support, and allows one to pursue a goal that is realistic and plausible, without negating the role of positive thinking (Refer here and here for additional information on mental contrasting).

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The tenants of positive thinking also heavily disapprove negative and sad thoughts. While it is true that, ideally, we should not wallow in negativity to the extent of disrupting our day to day living, that is not reason enough to completely suppress our sadness. While it is perfectly fine to advise someone to look on the bright side of things, sometimes there is no bright side, and that itself is perfectly fine too. We sometimes take positive thinking too far, and forget that we humans are far from one-dimensional creatures; we are each of us a constellation of different emotions both positive and negative, joyful and forlorn.  As beneficial as it is to take on an optimistic and cheerful perspective on life, it is equally important to give ourselves the space to experience sadness, to explore the pains and hurts we may encounter throughout our lives. Only when we have fully experienced those emotions and come to terms with them, can we get back on our feet and face the world with newfound strength and hope.

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It is, perhaps not surprisingly, easy to want to believe that all good things will come, simply by shifting gears into a positive mindset. Yet reality is seldom so simple. Rather than merely soaking in a pool of positivity, it is paramount that we balance the intoxication of positive thinking with a sobering dose of reality. Life is, after all, a collection of happy and sad moments alike, and that is what makes it beautiful.

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A trueborn kid at heart with a penchant for lame jokes of every kind, Tim enjoys lazy afternoons with coffee in one hand and a good fantasy book in the other. Having hailed from an imaginary world, he believes in mankind’s inherent duality, and has thus embarked on a quest to uncover the hidden truths of the human mind, armed with the regalia of psychology, philosophy and uncommon sense. Has a soft spot for plushies and baby animals.

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