How Positive Thinking Can Backfire

There’s no shortage of self-help gurus who swear that repeating positive phrases to yourself can change your life. According to them, if you tell yourself, “I am strong and successful,” your fears will simply disappear.

If you’ve tried using positive affirmations, you know that it can be a difficult habit to maintain. You may spend five, 10 or even 20 minutes reciting your affirmation, but the other 23-plus hours of the day? Chances are that your mind drifts back to old, repetitive thoughts that have burned deep grooves in your brain.

The problem with positive affirmations is that they operate at the surface level of conscious thinking. They do nothing to contend with the subconscious mind where limiting beliefs really live.

It goes without saying that if you command yourself to think, “I am abundant and attract wealth,” yet your deeply held core belief is that you are never enough or unworthy of your success, your brain will be quick to incite an inner war.

If you trying tell yourself, “I am successful,” but you struggle with insecurity regarding your skills and accomplishments, your subconscious may likely remind you of the many times you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of your boss or made a mistake at work.

The secret to success, we are sometimes told, is the power of positive thinking. In fact, there’s a famous book devoted to that idea called, appropriately, The Power of Positive Thinking, and there’s a similarly themed book called The Secret. But there’s another secret, according to new research: Fantasizing about a wonderful, happy future may actually make depression symptoms worse in the long run.

It’s not that positive thinking is entirely bad for you, psychologists Gabriele Oettingen, Doris Mayer, and Sam Portnow write in Psychological Science. Indeed, in the short run, there’s some evidence that daydreaming about good things can curtail symptoms of depression. At the same time, fantasies might actually set you up for failure — you think about the good things, but don’t put in any effort to get them, then feel worse for not having achieved anything.

The question Oettingen, Mayer, and Portnow ask: Could dreams of a happy future actually leave you more depressed down the road?

In three experiments involving college students and schoolchildren, the researchers say the answer is largely yes. In the first study, 67 undergraduates took a survey to assess any symptoms of depression they might have before completing a series of 12 scenarios. In one scenario, the researchers had participants imagine they had asked their client for an extension on a business project. Then, the undergrads wrote down what they might do while waiting to hear the client’s response, and to rate how positive or negative their thoughts were. The students who took the survey filled out the scenarios in February and again in March.

As The Secret would have you believe, students who ended their scenarios on a more positive note presented fewer signs of depression, but only in February. A month later, exactly the opposite was true: The more they concocted positive endings to their scenarios, the more depressed they were in March, relative to how they felt in February.

That result held up in two additional studies, one involving fourth- and fifth-grade students over a period of seven months, and another with undergraduates who reported on how positive or negative their daily thoughts and mental images were. In both cases, happy thoughts eased depression in the moment, but worsened it in the long run.

The authors are careful to point out that their results do not imply that thinking happy thoughts actually causes depression — only that it seems to be correlated with depression down the road. But, taken together with other recent results, the findings suggest that thinking positive isn’t always a good idea.

“The modern era is marked by a push for ever-positive thinking, and the self-help market fueled by a reliance on such positive thinking is a $9.6 billion industry that continues to grow,” the researchers write. “Our findings raise questions of how costly this market may be for people’s long-term well-being and for society as a whole.”

In an interview in the Washington Post, Harvard University psychologist and author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, Susan David says of positive thinking: “A lot of our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant, so people will just say things like, ‘just be positive and things will be fine. ‘The tyranny of positivity’ was what a friend of mine called it. She recently died of cancer, and what she meant was if being in remission was just a matter of positive thinking, then all of her friends in her breast cancer support group would be alive today. By sending out the message that our thoughts are responsible for creating our health, well-being, and reality, we are overvaluing the power of our thoughts, while making people feel culpable when something bad happens to them. They feel it is because they weren’t positive enough. What is actually guaranteed in life is that it will not go well sometimes. You’re healthy, until you’re not healthy. You’re with the person you love, until you’re not with the person you love. You enjoy your job, until you don’t. We will find ourselves in situations where we will feel anger, sadness and grief and so on. Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard. I believe the strong cultural focus on happiness and thinking positively is actually making us less resilient. The next point — and this is very important to me — emotions like sadness, guilt, grief and anger are beacons for our values. We don’t get angry about stuff we don’t care about. We don’t feel sad or guilty about stuff we don’t care about. If we push these emotions away, we are choosing not to learn about ourselves. We are choosing to ‘ignore our values and what is important to us. And the last point, when we tell ourselves to ‘think positive’ and to push negative or difficult emotions aside, it won’t work. It doesn’t work.”

Sometimes, positive thinking also includes positive affirmations about the future. While some research has supported the effectiveness of doing this, other research has raised serious concerns about its efficacy.

In my article, “Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Work,” I cite the research of University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, a founder of the positive psychology movement, distinguished realistic optimism, which hopes for the best while remaining attuned to potential threats, from unrealistic optimism, which ignores such threats; A 2007 study by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener and Michigan State University psychologist Richard Lucas reinforces Peterson’s concerns; and the research of Canadian researcher Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

What To Do Instead

Researcher Gabriele Gettingen says that “Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real” by dwelling on the challenges or obstacles. But this is too extreme a correction. Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies. What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with ‘realism.’ Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish. This simple process, which my colleagues and I call ‘mental contrasting,’ has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles. When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.”

And when it comes to making positive affirmations in positive thinking take this approach:

  • Draw your awareness to any declared self-statements, whether positive or negative.
  • Tweak these statements into questions; e.g.: “I am” into “Am I?”
  • Mull over possible answers to these questions and come up with additional questions. “What if..?” produces a particularly fruitful line of enquiry.

Eliciting your curiosity and creativity using this method will put an end to that draining inner struggle, which in turn will reduce the tension in your body and help you relax. It won’t cost you anything and it will position you to reap excellent end results.

Summary:

In coaching my clients, the final step that helps them move past just wishful thinking, or relying on “the power of attraction” or ideas in the The Secret but rather take positive action, once they’ve thought of obstacles to overcome and how they would do that.

Positive thinking is pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s always good for us. Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forced jumping for joy.

Be sure to read my new book, Macho Men: How Toxic Masculinity Harms Us All And What To Do About It, available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon.

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Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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