For some time now, optimism has been touted as the one-way route to ultimate health and happiness. Books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret promise prosperity and personal fulfillment with just a few cognitive tweaks to your thinking. However, recent studies have disclosed a few potholes in this smiley-faced philosophy. In fact, according to some experts, positive thinking can actually causemore emotional harm than good.
The Rumor: Positive thinking might make you feel worse about things
In her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich explores the smothering impact of positive thinking in American culture. In her view, some of the tactics touted by positive-thinking gurus — i.e., “thought control” and “self-hypnosis” — imply that positivity requires “deliberate self-deception” and an unwillingness to accept reality. “If the generic ‘positive thought’ is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking?” she asks. Her conclusion? “Irrational optimism” (as she calls it) can lead to self-blame and other disempowering attitudes.
The Verdict: Positive Thinking helps optimists, but not pessimists
Research suggests that the anatomy of the brain can take only so much pressure to be positive before it basically flips the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center) the bird. This is especially true if you happen to be a chronic worrier. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that there was a breakdown in normal patterns of emotional processing that prevented depressed and anxious people from suppressing negative emotions. In fact, the more they tried, the more they activated the fear center of their brain, the amygdala — which fed them more negative messages. Ay yi yi!
Similarly, psychologist Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada led a study wherein a group of people were told to repeat to themselves a positive mantra — “I am a lovable person” — on cue, 16 times. At the end of the exercise, the folks who already had normal to high self-esteem reported feeling slightly better, but the ones with low self-esteem felt worse. Katie Goldsmith, of the University of California, Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, blogged about the study, explaining that the people with low self-esteem may have been damaged by the mantra because it reminded them that they aren’t measuring up to their own standards. Researchers also found that people with low self-esteem were better off when they were allowed to have negative thoughts, versus focusing solely on positive ones.
Oliver Burkeman, also with Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, cited a study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology wherein a bunch of thirsty people were asked to visualize an icy glass of water. What happened? Their energy levels dropped. Observed Burkeman, “Visualizing your ideal future is a staple of self-help bestsellers, but vividly picturing success can backfire badly.”
If you’re a natural-born pessimist, that is.