Can Positive Thinking Be Negative
Research suggests limits to looking on the sunny side of life
“ACCENTUATE the positive, the 1944 song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen cheerfully implored us. From Benjamin Franklins 1750 Poor Richards Almanack to todays parade of motivational speakers, Americans have long embraced an optimistic, can-do attitude toward life. Plug positive thinking into Amazon.com, and you will find a never-ending supply of products designed to help us see life through rose-colored lenses, including a Power of Positive Thinking wall calendar and an Overcoming Adversity with Encouragement and Affirmation poster series.
In fact, however, positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.
Pluses of PessimismDespite the popular emphasis on positive thinking, academic psychology was for many decades centered on the negative. Even today a perusal of the typical psychology textbook reveals a predominance of topics dealing with the dark side of lifemental illness, crime, addiction, prejudice and the likeprobably reflecting an aim to remediate these personal and social problems.
This article was originally published with the title “Facts & Fictions in Mental Health: Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” in SA Mind 22, 2, 64-65
Assessing Mindset: 3 Questionnaires And Tests
There are plenty of mindset tests available for scoring growth mindsets and highlighting opportunities to improve. Check out the following sample of three:
- The research-validated Mindset Assessment at Mindset Works identifies elements of your mindset that are fixed and helps you to develop strategies to move toward growth.
- PERTS Mindset Kit offers a mindset assessment involving journal writing for children in second grade.
- IDR Labs had a growth mindset test that highlights an individuals degree of fixed versus growth mindset based on Dwecks research.
While some of the above tests may not have been scientifically validated, they offer insight into areas of our thinking that we should consider revisiting.
Building Upon The Humanistic Movement
Theres no denying positive psychology was built upon the shoulders of the giants of the humanistic movement, namely Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, and Eric Fromm. Each of these influential psychologists shared a similar trait an unwavering belief in human potential, and an unyielding determination to study the best ways to unlock that potential.
Maslow was the first person to use the term positive psychology in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality. Echoing Seligmans sentiment over four decades earlier, Maslow was concerned psychology was wide of the mark and didnt capture the full view of personal strengths, positive emotion and human potential that can influence a pleasant life and authentic happiness. He wrote:
The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side it has revealed to us much about mans shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half.
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How Is Positive Psychology And Positive Thinking Applied
Because positive psychology emphasizes flourishing and human potential, its relevant to everyone, not only those experiencing mental illness. You could argue the rise of the self-help guru has been supported by the popularity of positive psychology, especially the recent growth of fields such as life coaching and a broad range of NLP practitioners.
But how is positive psychology applied, and how can you use it to learn how to be happy? Fortunately, anyone can benefit from the growing bodies of research to continue to grow, live a more meaningful life, and cultivate positive emotions.
Below are three of the biggest takeaways from the research to date. Adding these to your self-development repertoire will have a positive impact on your overall well-being.
Positive Psychology In Sport And Performance
Are sporting coaches and competitive athletes amongst the more likely to benefit from the principles of positive psychology?
Recently I was cleaning out my filing cabinet and I came across an email from a previous coach of mine. The message contained some feedback on what he felt I needed to improve on after a recent tournament. I scanned through the email and felt a heaviness settle in my stomach. The emotions came back from the time I first received the email many years ago. The feedback was all negative but phrased as the areas I needed to improve on. Comments like you need to do this more, and in this situation, you need to be doing this. No traces of Positive Psychology anywhere.
None of the feedback was given to me during the tournament itself. It was all put in an email and sent when we got back and with no follow-up. What I noticed most was that there was no positive feedback at all. After reading his email, I felt unmotivated and deflated. Im sure this is not what he intended but its what happened. Is this type of feedback going to make for better athletes and competitors?
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What Is Positive Psychology: A Definition
Positive psychology has been described in many ways and with many words, but the commonly accepted definition of the field is this:
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living .
To push this brief description a bit further, positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behavior, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to great instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to normal .
Research Behind The Theory And Model
While Dwecks ideas on the importance of adopting a growth mindset have been widely accepted and applauded, sometimes without fully grasping the importance of the principles beneath, it is vital to remember that it is more than just an idea.
Dweck and others have spent years researching what a growth mindset is and is not, and their findings back up their claims .
In a 2013 study, Gunderson et al. found that praising effort in children leads to a growth mindset, while encouraging inherent abilities leads to adopting fixed-ability frameworks. Ongoing research has identified that adopting a growth mindset dramatically changes how you approach life and encourages success in education, business, and even relationships .
Yeager and Dweck explained the current state of research into growth mindsets in education and attempted to answer some of the challenges and questions surrounding the theory. Some examples from their research are included below.
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Overcome Pain And Grief
The supreme principle of conduct in suffering situations is outwardly behaving properly and at the same time managing the thoughts and feelings as well as possible. Is the difficult situation outside gone, we can heal our emotional wounds.At certain points of the problem we got inner tensions. This tensions must be resolved again when the external stress situation is over. When we don´t heal ourself after stress situations, they remain permanently in our mind. In the long term they affect our mental well-being. They lead to neurotic behavior and can cause physical illnesses.
If a problem affects you emotionally, it is good to do a helpful ritual. Think first about the problem. Thinking leads to constructive engagement with the problem. You realize that you can do something. You are not a helpless victim. You can live as a winner. You can solve the problem in any way. What is your helpful idea about your problem? My idea is
If the problem is very big, you can do several rounds of reading, walking, doing good, enjoying and meditating. Usually you get then to the point, where peace arises within you. Be very gentle with you and heal emotionally more and more.If a problem can not be solved in one day, stop after a while your thinking about the problem. Forbid you every further reflection. Avoid harmful rumination, which leads to nothing and only reinforces the internal stress. For large problems, you can take every day a certain time for problem handling.
Examples Of Positive Psychology In Practice
Now, on to what the practitioners and application-minded people are really here forhow to put positive psychology into practice!
Positive psychology principles and exercises can be applied in several different settings, including therapy, the classroom, the workplace, and in your own home.
Some of the techniques that have proven most useful include:
The use of the experience sampling method , also referred to as a daily diary method.
Before the days of smartphones, you would be given a beeper or pager that goes off at random points during the day, alerting you to pause, notice what you were thinking, feeling, and doing at
that moment, and writing it all down. This is often used in positive interventions to help people realize how much of their day is actually quite positive.
The practice of keeping a gratitude journal.
A gratitude journal offers individuals a method of identifying and reflecting on all of the good things in their livesall the things they have to be grateful for. Interventions often involve prompting people to write down three things they are grateful for each day, with the only stipulation being that they need to be different each day. Within a week, many people experience a boost in wellbeing along with an increase in gratitude.
Making a gratitude visit.
Focusing on building personal strengths instead of weaknesses.
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Give Back & Help Others
Giving back has a positive effect on your body and will make you feel great. Studies show that when people donated to charity, the portion of the brain responsible for feelings of reward were triggered. The brain also releases feel-good chemicals and spurs you to perform more kind acts. Giving back can also improve your self-esteem, sense of belonging, and make you feel more thankful and appreciative of what you have.
- Volunteer at a food bank or local community service project.
- Donate old clothing or household items to a local drive, Goodwill, or Salvation Army.
- Offer to help a neighbor or family member in need.
- Perform one intentional act of kindness.
- Donate blood.
- Cook for someone in need.
- Participate in a local walk to raise money for a charity or condition .
- Clean up the environment.
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The Downsides Of Positivity
Positivity is a booming industry. Thousands of books, countless blogs and news stories, untold quantities of internet memes, and quite a bit of legitimate science sing the praises of happiness and positive thinking. This sentiment is not new, of course. Its roots precede the modern era, appearing in some form in the writings of Aristotle the 1950s saw the publication of Dr Norman Vincent Peales bestselling book on the topic, The Power of Positive Thinking and Rhonda Byrnes The Secret attributed magical powers to positive thinking in the mid-2000s.
In fact, it appears that positivitys stock may be past its prime. The stack of books questioning the value of positivity is beginning to rival the stack touting the benefits of happiness and positive thinking. Might positivity have a downside?
A stronger-than-straw manBefore I make the case against positivity as panacea, let me be clear: Positivity has many benefits, well-supported by solid research. Work by Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues shows that positive emotions can bring out the best in us, making us more creative, open-minded, resilient, and connected to others. Happy people tend on average to be healthier, more physically active, more successful, more productive and more generous. They have more satisfying romantic relationships, more meaningful conversations and better friends. They may even live longer.
Criticisms: What Positive Thinking Is Not
Although weve covered compelling research on the benefits of positive thinking, there are some criticisms that are worth mentioning and help clarify what positive thinking is not.
First, excessive positive emotion may actually harm wellbeing. For example, Dr. June Grubers research suggests that too much positive emotion can be a risk factor for mania .
Furthermore, thinking excessively about happiness has also been linked to lower wellbeing. Especially, setting unreasonably high standards for happiness and frequently thinking about ones own emotional state have been linked to lower happiness . This research suggests that there may be some aspects of positive thinking that are not good for us.
Another common criticism of positive thinking is that its an inappropriate, and possibly ineffective, strategy in some situations for example, in response to the death of a loved one .
Further research has shown that cognitive reappraisal, which involves thinking about the positives or silver linings of a situation, can help in some situations and hurt in others. More specifically, using this positive thinking strategy was actually associated with higher depression in situations that were controllable . This suggests that positive thinking may not be an effective strategy in all situations.
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Meaning Of Topics Like Flow And Flourishing
Speaking of flourishing, its a concept weve touched on in this piece already, but have not yet defined. Weve also mentioned the topic of flow, though indirectly, which is an important concept in positive psychology as well.
Understanding these concepts is vital for understanding the field of positive psychology. Read on to learn more about them.
Recognizing A Growth Mindset
Ask the client to think about someone who spends most of their time in a fixed mindset :
- How do they act and talk?
- Are they extremely sensitive to being wrong?
- Are you this way?
Now, think of someone who exhibits a growth mindset and ask yourself:
- How do they view and approach obstacles?
- How do they stretch themselves?
Ask the client to consider why you may enjoy and get more out of life with a growth mindset. Discuss and list some pros and cons.
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Characteristics Of Grateful People
What separates more grateful people from less grateful people? Recent evidence shows that a lot of the differences may be in how grateful people approach situations in which theyve received some form of aid. When presented with the same short stories in which participants are told theyve received help from another people, more grateful people tend to see their benefactors as more selfless and having exerted more effort to help, as well as placing higher value on the help they received . To further support this hypothesis, these authors sought to replicate their findings in peoples daily lives. Students kept diaries of moments in their everyday environment when they were helped by another person and then asked to rate how selfless and sincere was the benefactor, how much effort did the benefactor expend, how grateful did they feel toward their benefactor, and how valuable was the help received Findings from these random moments in everyday life supported the hypothesis that more grateful people rate all of these factors higher than less grateful people. These findings suggest that grateful people interpret events in a unique way, and this interpretation style might account for the benefits extracted from gift giving experiences.
Is Positive Psychology The Same As Positive Thinking
Positive psychology is different from positive thinking in three significant ways. First, positive psychology is grounded in empirical and replicable scientific study. Second, positive thinking urges positivity on us for all times and places, but positive psychology does not. Positive psychology recognizes that in spite of the advantages of positive thinking, there are times when negative or realistic thinking is appropriate. Studies find that optimism is associated with better health, performance, longevity, and social success , but there is evidence that in some situations negative thinking leads to more accuracy and being accurate can have important consequences . Optimistic thinking can be associated with an underestimation of risks . For example, we do not necessarily want a pilot or air traffic controller to be an optimist when deciding whether to take off during a storm.The third distinction between positive thinking and positive psychology is that many scholars of positive psychology have spent decades working on the negative side of things depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. We do not view positive psychology as a replacement for traditional psychology, but merely as a supplement to the hard-won gains of traditional psychology.
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