Jul 28

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 Gabrielle 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.)


Oct 23

Positive Psychology: Chris Peterson’s “The Good Life”

How unfortunate for the field of positive psychology that many confuse it with the school of rah-rah positive thinking. They’re actually two distinctly different approaches.

One of the well-respected founders of positive psychology, Christopher Peterson, defined it in a blog post several years ago:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.  It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.

The list below, according to Peterson, are some of the things this area of study has discovered. Asterisks behind several of them indicate that I’ve made additional comments that follow.

• Most people are happy.
• Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along    for the happy ride. People who are satisfied with life eventually have even more reason to be satisfied, because happiness leads to desirable outcomes at school and work, to fulfilling social relationships, and even to good health and long life.
• Most people are resilient.
• Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.
• Crisis reveals character.
• Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes like most worth living.
• Religion matters.*
• And work matters as well if it engages the worker and provides meaning and purpose.
• Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.
• As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia trumps hedonism.**
• The ‘heart’ matters more than the ‘head.’ Schools explicitly teach critical thinking; they should also teach unconditional caring.
• Good days have common features: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to others.
• The good life can be taught.***

*Not a reflection of Peterson’s personal beliefs, but an acknowledgment of the importance of religion to many.

**According to the Free Dictionary, eudaimonia is “a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous.” Hedonism, on the other hand, is the “(p)ursuit of or devotion to pleasure.”

***This is good news, he notes, though it’s necessary to put one’s newfound knowledge to use regularly in order to sustain progress.

Earlier this month Christopher Peterson passed away at the age of 62.

One of the major contributions he made to positive psychology was the study of character strengths. He encouraged people to take the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Signature Strengths.

How can this help you? You’re more likely to attain contentment or happiness if you learn how to capitalize on your strengths that score the highest.

Peterson’s book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, co-authored with Martin Seligman, identifies 24 strengths that fall into six groups of virtues:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
    • creativity
    • curiosity
    • open-mindedness
    • love of learning
    • perspective and wisdom
  • Courage
    • bravery
    • persistence
    • integrity
    • vitality
  • Humanity
    • love
    • kindness
    • social intelligence
  • Justice
    • active citizenship / social responsibility / loyalty / teamwork
    • fairness
    • leadership
  • Temperance
    • forgiveness and mercy
    • humility and modesty
    • prudence
    • self-regulation and self control
  • Transcendence
    • appreciation of beauty and appreciation of excellence
    • gratitude
    • hope
    • humor and playfulness
    • spirituality, or a sense of purpose and coherence

Available on the Psychology Today website, Peterson’s blog was called “The Good Life: Positive Psychology and What Makes Life Worth Living.” Material culled from this column will be featured in his next book, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology, expected to be released in early January.