You’ve heard the self-help gurus who say positive thoughts can bring us happiness, wealth and success. But there’s another side to the story. Here’s why positive thinking often backfires — and why many of us are starting to resent it.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Positive thinking is that spin we put on life and all its hardships. Instead of getting mired down in doom-and-gloom thinking, many of us work to adopt a more positive outlook and work under the assumption that the best is going to happen.
This kind of thinking typically starts with self-talk — the inner narrative of unspoken thoughts that run through our heads. Over the course a day, these semi-automatic thoughts vary in terms of their positive and negative intensity depending on any number of factors. Some of this self-talk arises from logic and reason, while others are instigated by misconceptions, stress, biases, the influence of others and even hormonal triggers. Proponents of positive thinking say it’s important for us to be aware of our negative thoughts so that we can replace it with a more positive frame.
Studies do indeed show that there are many positive social and health benefits to be had by adopting such thinking, but there’s a danger in taking this idea too far, or in overstating its potential to meaningfully change our lives. As we’re learning, many of the claims made by positive thinking gurus are exaggerated. Some attempts to apply positive thinking can even backfire. And worse, they can even be construed as a form of victim blaming at the expense of recognising larger structural problems.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Intuitively, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that positive thinking leads to positive health outcomes — and there’s plenty of research to back this assumption up.
Research done last decade shows our attitudes can have a profound effect on our longevity. Yale University social psychologist Becca Levy found that people with a sunny, optimistic outlook on growing older live longer than those who are constantly worrying. Those who feel bad about growing old, on the other hand, experience an accelerated ageing process. Levy’s work, which spanned attitudes over a 30 year span, suggests that negative attitudes serve as health risks akin to smoking and excessive alcohol use. She has conducted other studies showing that positive thinking can also translate to better memory and even sharper hearing.
Levy’s research did not look into the exact mechanisms behind these dramatic effects, but she suspects it has something to do with the will to live, which is defined as a person’s belief that the positive aspects of life outweigh the hardships.
Along the same lines, a 2011 study by Robert Gramling showed that patients diagnosed with coronary artery disease who had a positive outlook about their recovery were less likely to die over the next 15 years. They also had better physical functioning a year later.
Positive thinking can also be used to combat depression. A therapeutic strategy called Positive Activity Interventions (PAIs) has shown some promise. The treatment involves intentional positive behaviours and thoughts, such as performing acts of kindness, expressing gratitude, meditating on positive feelings towards others and expressing one’s “best possible self”. Randomised controlled experiments have shown that PAIs lead to increases in positive emotions and well-being. Such outcomes show that it’s not necessary to make dramatic life changes when combating depression. Instead, by employing these simple cognitive and behavioural strategies, people can reliably increase their own happiness.
Positive thinking can also prevent us from getting sick. A 2003 study in Psychosomatic Medicine showed that people with a positive emotional style (PES) — such as being energetic, happy and relaxed — are less likely to catch the common cold than people who are depressed, nervous or angry. The study also found that uptight or sad people were more likely to complain of cold symptoms even when they weren’t sick. It should be noted, however, that negative emotions were not linked to a person’s risk for getting sick — just their tendency to report symptoms of illness.
There’s also the connection to improved performance. Sports psychologists say it’s crucial for athletes to develop positive self-talk. Indeed, negative thoughts are among the biggest contributors to pre-event jitters and performance anxiety. Athletes are told to choose simple affirmations (like “I feel strong” or “Go, go, go), practice multiple scenarios and create a positive mental image or visualisation.
Studies show that when athletes engage in positive self-talk, performances improve, albeit just slightly. Thinking positively has been shown to be effective for tasks involving relatively fine, as compared to gross, motor skills, and for novel, as opposed to well-learned tasks.
It’s No Secret
But can the power of positive thinking really work to help us succeed at school or in the workplace? And can it reliably be used to help us achieve our goals and overcome even some of the most challenging hardships?
Indeed, a good number of people believe that happy thoughts will help them get further in life. Ever since Rhonda Byrne published The Secret in 2006, plenty of folks have been taken with the idea that positive thoughts are rewarded with happiness, wealth, influence, wisdom and success.
“The way to change a lack of belief is very simple,” writes Byrne. “Begin thinking the opposite thoughts to what you’ve been thinking about yourself: that you can do it, and that you have everything within you to do it.”
On the face of it, Byrne’s prescription makes sense. Having a good attitude and positive thoughts about a task or outcome should produce a stronger work ethic, increased motivation and a sunnier outlook. In turn, these attitudes should result in success.
But as marketing professor Adam Alter pointed out in The New Yorker, these strategies sound suspiciously familiar to techniques used by fitness gurus. In his article, “The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking“, he writes:
[When] you see actors with tanned, chiselled bodies promoting a new piece of fitness equipment, you get the sense that they aren’t in excellent shape because they have spent hours using that particular machine. More likely, they jog or lift weights, or have great genes or a lightning-fast metabolism, or have some combination of these characteristics. It’s just as hard to believe that the heroes in Byrne’s books — let alone a feverishly productive polymath like Goethe or the notoriously irritable Beethoven — succeeded because they cultivated good thoughts.
And as noted by journalist Oliver Burkeman in “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking“:
Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.
Indeed, “good thoughts” can only get us so far in this highly competitive world. The facile notion that we can accomplish anything if we just adopt the right attitude flies in the face of reality and common sense. And as studies are increasingly showing, positive fantasies may actually lessen our chances of succeeding.
According to research done by Gabriele Oettingen — a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation — the reality is that positive thinking often hinders us.
A few decades ago, she investigated the impact of expectation and fantasy on the weight losses of 25 obese women participating in a behavioural weight reduction program. She presented the women with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events, and asked them to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some scenarios had the women imagining success, while others imagined scenarios in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. Oettingen then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.
Shockingly, a follow-up survey revealed that the more positively these women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer kilograms they had lost. Since then, Oettingen has conducted a number of similar studies — and they all point to the same result: Fantasising about happy outcomes hinders people from realising their dreams.
I contacted Oettingen and asked her to explain this counterintuitive result.
“The problem with merely dreaming about the future and imagining that we’ve reached this desired future is that we’re already imagining being there — and that saps our energy to actually understand the obstacles and hindrances that are on the way to our reaching this positive future,” she told us. “So, we don’t put in enough effort to go the hard way and deal with all the hindrances and temptations, and we also don’t plan for it. Then, when life hits, we are often unprepared.”
Instead of fantasising about an unrealistic future, Oettingen says we should use a technique called “mental contrasting” — a hybrid approach the combines positive thinking with realism.
“The idea behind mental contrasting is that you imagine a desired future, and then you experience that desired future in your mind. In that way, it is like dreaming about the future,” she explained. “That gives you direction — but it’s not enough.”
Oettingen says we need to understand what’s holding us back, and what actually stops us from achieving our goals. We need to figure out what’s standing in our way and what’s preventing us from going all the way.
“By understanding what your obstacle is,” she says, “you will get the energy to overcome that obstacle.”
Essentially, mental contrasting works by connecting our future to reality. Or more accurately, it connects the reality and the instrumental means to overcome the reality, thus changing the meaning of reality so that the reality is now an obstacle.
“So, for example, the party is not a fun party any more, but rather an obstacle to my excelling in the exam two days later,” she says.
By imagining success or the attainment of a goal, and then thinking about the feasibility of achieving that goal and all the obstacles that stand in the way, we come away being more realistic, more energised and more likely to succeed. Her work on healthy eating and exercise proves it.
Oettingen has even created an app called Woop to help students and business people use mental contrasting in their daily lives.
The Tyranny of Positive Thinking
Another person who’s sceptical of the positive thinking paradigm is American political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In her book, she takes on the idea that we must work on ourselves in order to be successful and optimistic.
She first encountered this imposition when she was being treated for breast cancer. In a 2009 Globe and Mail interview she said:
I went looking for support, but what I found instead, to my horror, was this constant exhortation to be positive, to make lemonade out of lemons, to embrace your cancer as a gift…I felt angry and I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging that feeling. But when you’re told to change how you think about cancer, that it’s up to you to be positive, then essentially you’re being told to be passive in the face of the status quo.
Ehrenreich traces the roots of the positive-thinking movement to the early part of the 19th century when people began rebelling against Calvinist sentiments about predestination and damnation. Since that time, people have increasingly railed against those notions, adopting a worldview which suggests we can choose to feel better about ourselves and our place in the world. But now, it has been diverted from being a healing method toward a way of gaining wealth and success. Indeed, Ehrenreich takes great issue with corporate culture, and how it uses the cult of positive thinking to mould and motivate its employees.
Blame the Victim
As Ehrenreich points out, unsolicited admonitions to be a positive thinker can be rather off-putting when we’re dealing with the hardships of life and when we’re told to ignore our feelings. But as York University sociologist Julia Hemphill told me, the positive thinking narrative can also lead to victim blaming.
“One of the taken-for-granted problems with positive-thinking is that there is an implicit, but strong suggestion that, if people are responsible for their fortunes, than people must likewise be responsible for their own misfortunes,” she told us.
“Take for instance individuals who have experienced life-long abuse, poverty, or oppression. If we believe that thinking positively — or put another way “we get what we give” — determines our life circumstances, than it logically follows that certain people must likewise be responsible for the outcomes of the structural challenges that they face,” she says.
Accordingly, Hemphill says we cannot just “positively think” away structural hardships. She says it’s an “anti-sociological” perspective that distracts us from larger systemic problems.
“In this way the belief in positive thinking also functions as a way to blame victims,” she says. “Further, the status quo remains unchallenged by such thinking, as these types of sentiments serve to individualize broader social problems.”
At the same time, she says it works to serve the benefit of the privileged, especially those who are already experiencing “positive lives”.