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.)
Jun 23

“Stand Firm” Against Unhelpful Self-Help?

Svend Brinkmann, PhD, is a Danish philosopher and psychologist who believes, according to the publisher of his new book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze Stand Firmthat “(t)he secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others.”

A Psychology Today post by Brinkmann spells out his main recommendations. Click on the link for more specifics:

  1. “Cut out the navel-gazing: The more you gaze lovingly at your navel, the worse you will feel. Doctors call it the health paradox…”
  2. “Focus on the negative in your life: We have been told to be positive for decades, but it doesn’t help…”
  3. “Put on your No hat: Saying ‘I don’t want to do that’ conveys strength and integrity…”
  4. “Suppress your feelings…Adults should choose dignity over authenticity.”
  5. “Sack your coach: Coaching and therapy have become ubiquitous development tools in our accelerating culture…”
  6. “Read a novel – not a self-help book…”
  7. “Dwell on the past: If you think things are bad now, just remember that they can always get worse. And probably will…”

Although I support most of the above, I’m putting on my No hat to the idea of sacking your therapist—unless, of course, he or she isn’t helping you.

A sampling of Stand Firm quotes, the first of which are courtesy of the book review by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz):

I believe our thoughts and emotions should mirror the world. When something bad happens, we should be allowed to have negative thoughts and feelings about it because that’s how we understand the world.

Life is wonderful from time to time, but it’s also tragic. People die in our lives, we lose them, if we have only been accustomed to being allowed to have positive thoughts, then these realities can strike us even more intensely when they happen—and they will happen.

And the following are additional quotes:

If others can’t be sure I will be the same tomorrow as I am today and was yesterday, then they have no reason to trust me or that I will do what I promise and otherwise live up to my obligations. And if I don’t know my own past, if I don’t try my best to establish a link between yesterday, today and tomorrow, then others have no reason to trust me. If I don’t have what [French philosopher Paul] Ricoeur calls “self-constancy,” then neither I nor others will be able to count on me.

Very few will say out loud that their illness has been awful from start to finish and that they would rather not have had to go through it. A typical book title might be How I Survived Stress — And What It Taught Me, but you’re unlikely to find a book called I’m Still Stressed — It’s an Unending Nightmare. Not only do we suffer stress or illness and eventually die, we’re also supposed to think it’s all so enlightening and rewarding.

Jan 14

“One Simple Idea”: Mitch Horowitz on Positive Thinking

The author behind the new One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern LifeMitch Horowitz, is apparently the first to present “a serious and broad-ranging treatment and history of the positive-thinking movement.”

Although I’ve posted in the past on such related topics as “positive versus rational thinking” and how negative thinking can actually be more helpful than its opposite, I also believe positive thinking has its uses. But it’s all in how you approach it.

First, some ways it doesn’t work for me? How about when positive thinking isn’t based in reality, when it involves the implication of blaming people for not getting what they want, and when others are judged for not thinking “right.” What does work for me? When it’s acknowledged that needed changes in one’s life can occur with the aid of hopeful thinking that’s also rational.

Positive thinking as a movement holds that thoughts are causative. Which also happens, by the way, to be a basic belief of one of the types of therapy currently considered most effective, cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Although Horowitz concluded from his research that the positive thinking movement needs to be “reformed,” he also cites successes. The following mini-documentary, directed by Ronni Thomas, introduces what Horowitz discovered while studying the positive thinking movement:

Selected Book Reviews

Judith Viorst: “Serious skeptics, true believers, and seekers of every stripe will want to read Mitch Horowitz’s vibrant, probing, and richly researched account of the impact of the positive-thinking movement on every aspect of American life today. Filled with a cast of remarkable characters and many lively tales, One Simple Idea is a readable, responsible examination of the limits and possibilities of mind-power as a source of constructive transformation.”

Publishers Weekly: “Horowitz offers a spell-binding survey of the evolution and persistence of positive thinking and its shaping of modern America.”

Booklist: “Even those who are critical of the positive-thinking movement…are likely to agree that this is a well-researched, thoughtful, and frequently surprising history of the subject…the point is to educate and inform, and the author does that splendidly.”

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.