Thinking Positively Can Make You Feel Worse

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In America, we tend to laud the optimist and shun the pessimist. Not surprisingly, we are inundated with bromides about positive thinking and self-affirmation. But, turns out, all that stuff might not work. A new study published in Psychological Science argues that forcing positive thoughts can have negative consequences.

I’ve always thought self affirmations were a load of crap. Of course, I get itchy anytime someone tries to convince me that the world is roses and bunny rabbits. It’s my personality. But apparently, I’m not alone. In fact, the positive-thinking study found that:

[U]nfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem — so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.

The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.

In other words, we need to learn to cope. Trying to force ourselves to be positive and happy just makes us realize how negative and unhappy we actually are. That’s not to say we should mope around and drink all day. But it is saying we shouldn’t feel bad for not being happy. Being functional is good enough.

And isn’t that wisdom for our new age?