Think being a sunny optimist with constant positive thinking is always good? Think again!
Laura and Kate dig up some fascinating research revealing the negative sides of positive thinking. We explore two ways to balance positive thinking with reality.
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Richer Life Lab show quote
“I deserve good things, I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am an attractive person. I am fun to be with.” –Stuart Smalley (unlicensed therapist, host of Saturday Night Live’s Daily Affirmation – see video below)
Positive Thinking in the Self-Help World
Thinking positive thoughts has been the big message in the self-help world for the decades. It is today’s largest single self-improvement method.
The idea of looking on the bright side goes way back, however. Ancient Greek and Ayurvedic physicians realized thousands of years ago that when sick people’s attitudes were positive, they tended to heal faster.
As long as humans have observed each other’s behavior, we’ve noticed that people who are optimistic tend to be happier, healthier and achieve their goals more often than people who are negative and pessimistic.
When Is Positive Thinking Dangerous?
While that’s all good, the modern-day advice to push away all negative thoughts to focus solely on being upbeat and positive doesn’t really work, according to research. Positive thinking can be downright dangerous.
A number of studies have shown that optimistic people are healthier, but an expert at Cornell University looked at number of those studies and found that they don’t really prove that individuals’ attitudes affect their health. Psychologists could not find direct cause and effect. It’s possible that influence flows the other way—that people who are healthier have a more positive outlook, for example.
Gabrielle Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg in Germany has done some interesting research in this area. She studied people on diets and found that the more people thought positive thoughts about losing weight, the less weight they actually lost.
Oettingen found this pattern across other groups of people too, like patients who just had a hip-replacement and are in recovery. The more they fantasized about getting better, the worse the outcome.
Experts say the problem is that if you think only positive thoughts and try to squash all negative ideas, you’re not looking at the world realistically. Oettingen also discovered that dreaming about the future calms people down and lowers blood pressure, but sometimes it also drains energy and makes people less likely to take action to pursue their goals.
Positive Thinking and Self-Esteem
Another problem is that positive thinking works differently depending on people’s level of self-esteem. Studies have shown that people with high self-esteem benefit from positive thinking but people with low self-esteem don’t. Recently, a psychologist looked at pessimists and optimists and found out that pessimists need to have negative thoughts in order to cope better with their situations.
The fact is positive thinking can work, if you balance it with a healthy dose of reality. Here are 2 strategies to make positive thinking work for you:
Positive Thinking Strategy #1: Emotional Agility
Internal chatter—where you play positive and negative thoughts over and over in your head—is normal, but if you pay too much attention to it, it saps your energy. Practicing emotional agility walks you through four steps:
- Recognize patterns in the things you’re saying to yourself, especially the negative things
- Label the thought or the emotion of that thought that keeps running over and over in your head
- Accept the thought and emotion
- Act on your values
Positive Thinking Strategy #2: Mental Contrasting
The second strategy to use positive thinking without going overboard is mental contrasting:
- Think of a wish and imagine the wish coming true for a few minutes
- Then switch gears and spend a few minutes thinking about what obstacles might get in the way of that wish coming true
The benefit of mental contrasting is that it helps you dream about what you want but also helps you see what dreams are realistic and which ones are not.
Richer Life Lab Podcast practical
This week’s Richer Life Lab practical is to try either an emotional agility or a mental contrasting exercise. How did it go?
We want to hear about what’s working for you! Let us know if you try out one of the strategies we suggested in the show or have other recommendations that we can share with listeners in a future show.
Send us a Lab Report to firstname.lastname@example.org or record a voice message on this page. You can delete and re-record your message if you need to.
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