Positive Thinking: Not As Great As You’d Hope

Several authors who’ve studied the effects of positive thinking conclude it’s not always so great. On the other hand, negative thinking can be!

I. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (2014)

Author Gabriele Oettingen‘s main thesis is summed up by her publisher: Starry-eyed dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as it turns out, dreamers are not often doers.

Not that the dreaming part isn’t important—Oettingen’s own scientifically devised visualization technique does make good use of it. Called Mental Contrasting (with Implementation Intentions), it’s otherwise known as the first three steps (of four) of her WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan—system.

From her website:

…The Wish, Outcome, and Obstacle part of WOOP build nonconscious associations between future and reality and between the obstacles and the actions to overcome the obstacles. These associations provide energy and foster the mastery of set-backs. The Plan-part of WOOP further helps to overcome difficult obstacles by strengthening the association between obstacles and actions even more.

II. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009) by  Barbara Ehrenreich

As described by New York Magazine writer Kera Bolonik, this book “…was initially inspired by her resistance to the cancer-gives-my-life-meaning trope, which was inflicted on her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She found that insistent, blind optimism is deeply ingrained in our nation’s psyche, especially in the realms of finance and national security.”

Ehrenreich’s book takes on subject matter that potentially divides many in the mental health field. There are those therapists who regularly advocate affirmations and the type of positive thinking that Ehrenreich calls “delusional” thinking; and there are those (of us) who prefer helping clients learn how to develop more rational thinking versus positive thinking.

III. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012) by Oliver Burkeman

Negative thinking helps! Burkeman’s book “explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection.” More from the publisher:

The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy. And that there is an alternative ‘negative path’ to happiness and success that involves embracing the things we spend our lives trying to avoid. It is a subversive, galvanizing message, which turns out to have a long and distinguished philosophical lineage ranging from ancient Roman Stoic philosophers to Buddhists. Oliver Burkeman talks to life coaches paid to make their clients’ lives a living hell, and to maverick security experts such as Bruce Schneier, who contends that the changes we’ve made to airport and aircraft security since the 9/11 attacks have actually made us less safe. And then there are the ‘backwards’ business gurus, who suggest not having any goals at all and not planning for a company’s future…

Presented in the magazine Psychologies, here are four ways Burkeman advises using negative thinking. (The parentheticals below are my own paraphrasing of the explanations given in the article.)

  1. Focus on the worst-case scenario, not the best. (You get a clearer idea of what you’re actually worried about.)
  2. Don’t fall victim to “goalodicy.” (That’s the pursuit of idiotic goals.)
  3. Follow a compass, not a map. (A map represents too much rigidity.)
  4. Trying too hard to feel upbeat can make you miserable. (You don’t have to be wonderful in order to accept yourself.)
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