Emotional Wellbeing


Mandy Kloppers

The downside of positive thinking


The Downside of positive thinking

The downside of positive thinking rarely gets mentioned nowadays. A lot has been said about positive thinking, not only on this blog but elsewhere on the web. It’s a mantra that is rife and ubiquitous. The cult of positive thinking is upon us.

“Think the right thoughts and your life will turn around.”

“Don’t listen to your thinking – it’s all in your head.”  etc etc

Of course, looking on the bright side does make sense. Our thoughts are inextricably linked to our moods and emotions. When we focus on what is wrong in our lives we can spiral downwards into a pit of despair. In fact, it is impossible to constantly think positively. Unless you are a computer or robot, constantly being positive just isn’t normal. The downside of positive thinking sets in when we try with all our might to be positive and yet we fail. Not only do we fail but it’s all our fault because if we’d thought positively, then things would be better.

Positive thinking has been taken too far.  Look at nature – there are the seasons, the tides, there is a balance..yin and yang. So is it with our thinking.

1) Accept that negative thinking is a part of life

Try not to berate yourself for engaging (and possibly even serious wallowing) in negative thinking. Negative thinking is a necessary part of life – it motivates you to change things. People who are always positive are either mentally ill or in serious denial. Either way, it’s not good. Embrace negative thinking as a reminder that you need to progress – in all likelihood in the direction of negative thinking. When we have recurring negative thinking, it is a sign that we need to face something or deal with something important. It is part of the journey we are on. Thank the negativity as a warning sign and your inner wisdom offering you guidance.

2) See the value in negative thinking

Not all negative thinking is bad. At times we need it to help us proceed cautiously. Negative thinking that is resolution focused rather just random worrying can be useful.

Interestingly, research has shown that optimism doesn’t always equip people for long-term stresses. This was shown in an intriguing 2006 study of law students carried out by Suzanne Segerstrom of the University of Kentucky. The immune responses of optimistic and pessimistic students were compared when they were operating under high and low demands for their time and energy. Normally, optimists tend to perceive less stress because either they are better able to cope or because they see the world with rosier glasses. However, when demands become ultra-severe, the optimists suffered a lower immune response than pessimists.

Part of the reason for the poorer immune response of optimists is the way they approach stressful situations. When faced with a stressor, whether it’s a major life crisis such as the loss of a close relative or friend, or a daily “hassle” such as getting caught in traffic, we can cope in basically one of two ways. In emotion-focused coping, you try to make yourself feel better through strategies such as looking at the bright side, putting the bad event out of your mind or calming your feelings through relaxation or meditation. In problem-focused coping, you try to turn the tide and actually get to the root of the stress. You decide what’s needed, set forth a plan, and go through the steps needed to complete the plan. There is less denial and more constructive action-based behaviour.

3) Emotion-focused thinking (optimism) versus problem-focused thinking (pessimism)

Researchers discovered years ago that there is no “right” way to cope with difficult life situations. Sometimes emotion-focused coping is more adaptive and at other times, problem-focused coping will alleviate the stress. You’re better off using emotion-focused coping when it’s too late to do anything to change the situation. Emotion-focused coping also works when there is an ongoing stressor that is outside of your control, such as a landlord who refuses to tell the residents of a next-door apartment to turn down their loud music late at night. On the other hand, when your actions will determine the consequences and change a negative outcome, emotion-focused coping can have unfortunate effects. Wishing a huge project at work would be smaller won’t make the project any smaller. You just have to tackle it. Problem-focused coping, then, is what’s most effective when your efforts really will make a difference.

4) The downside of optimism

Now we get to the part about optimists. With their strong belief in hope, their “can-do” attitude often leads optimists to adopt problem-focused coping past the point when their efforts to change the situation will make a difference. They believe that they can achieve what they want to, just by trying hard. This type of perfectionism can lead them to hold false and unrealistic expectations. They’d be better off sitting down and taking a breather rather than continually striving to change the unchangeable. In terms of the law students, unusually high demands tended to overwhelm them, causing their immune responses to fail. It’s amazing what we can justify to ourselves in our quests to make our lives happier but at times, this positive thinking is nothing more than intra-personal hoodwinking on a grand scale. There are some things that will just never be, no matter how much positivity you throw at it. It’s crucial to know the difference. Thinking can only take you so far.

5) Don’t throw hope away but stay grounded

The best balance is a cheerful hopeful attitude with plenty of back up plans just in case your optimism just doesn’t quite have enough oomph for the required result. Being resourceful and accepting what is happening is just as important as a good dose of positive thinking.

6) Pay attention to your health and your immune system

The downside of positive thinking is that you may overlook the obvious signs of emotional imbalance. Whatever your thoughts bring to you, a good gauge of your emotional health is how well your body is coping with stress. If you find that you suffer from sleeplessness, skin disorders, palpitations, sweaty palms, headaches, or gastro-intestinal troubles, this could be your body’s way of sending you a sign that it isn’t coping. Irrespective of your thinking, your body will always send you signs to let you know whether you are on the right track or not.

Mandy X

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Segerstrom, S. (2006). How does optimism suppress immunity? Evaluation of three affective pathways. Health Psychology, 25, 653-657.