Positive thinking is a just another staggering “feel-good” element today.
If you search Amazon for “positive thinking”, you are poured with numerous books to stay positive. The same goes for infinite articles on Google. And all of you know about the motivational videos that pop up on YouTube.
But the problem is: Positive thinking is junk food for the mind.
It might make you feel good now, but it’s going to make your mind unhealthy in the long run.
I know that the world has been preaching the perception of positive thinking since Norman Vincent’s “The Power of Positive Thinking”.
The thing is, it worked for the same reason Rhonda’s “The Secret” works in our generation: Making you feel airy-fairy good.
You might rub your evidences and fairy-tales on my face now, so I got this:
Before you throw all your ambiguous studies about how positive people are healthier than others or live longer, I want you to know something:
These studies are correlation studies. They do examine statistical connection between two things but do not specify the cause and effect.
This means, that positive thinking might make you healthier or that eating healthier might make you think positively.
Another interpretation: These correlations between positive outlook and longer lives might be the result of a third factor- say, being highly energetic or exercising.
The same reasons might also be valid for better job performance at work and lifting of depressed moods.
So, the researches that make you feel all rosy about positive perceptions might not be accurate.
Now, you might argue that positive thinking has led people out of the dark. It may have made them feel better about their life… Or…
The results might have been counter-intuitive.
Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” tells that “power of positive thinking” might not help us get happy, rich or cure cancer.
Being a patient of breast cancer herself, Barbara exposes the downsides of positive thinking with clarity and pissing-on-the-face honesty.
She argues that positive thinking is a force that masks unhappiness and poses dangers to the economy:
“Positive thinking promised them a sense of control in a world where the “cheese” was always moving. They may have had less and less power to chart their own futures, but they had been given a worldview — a belief system, almost a religion — that claimed they were in fact infinitely powerful, if they could only master their own minds.”
Ehrenreich also notes that while looking at the bright side of a bad situation may make feel one better on an individual level, but, it discourages any sort of collective action.
And psychology has found this to be true.
Having positive thinking fools your mind to believe that you have already achieved a goal, which makes you sluggish to actually work for it.
Positive fantasies reduce your future effort. In a study, students were asked to think about positive things that’d happen if the health crisis in Sierra resolved. Others were asked factual descriptions about what’d happen after crisis ends.
Afterward, these students were asked to donate money to the charity. They could give a small donation($1) or a large donation($25), which was a large sum for an undergraduate.
The results were: Positive thinkers almost never donated $25, while 25% of those who gave factual description were willing to donate.
Another study in the same context found that: Those who thought positively about the crisis were less likely to volunteer their time too, compared to those who factually thought about the crisis.
Hey, fantasies are good. So is envisioning your success. But, only as long as you’re ready to indulge in the real thing.
And, about getting the depressed in the light, positive thinking doesn’t work so well there either:
Positive thinking actually has opposite effects on people with low self-esteem.
In a series of studies, participants (grouped in high self-esteem and low self-esteem) were asked to conditionally repeat positive self-affirmation statements, every 15 seconds in 4 minutes.
Another group of a mixture of high self-esteem and low self-esteem were asked to have no self-statements.
Clearly, the high self-esteem participants in no self-statements condition had yet higher esteem than their peers in low self esteem.
However, in the positive self-affirmations condition, repeating statements like “I am lovable” put low self-esteem participants in even a worse mood. Not only this, they had even a lower self-esteem than those of the no self-statements group.
The affirmation did the antonym of what it was supposed to do.
Because, what you resist, persists.
No, really. Thinking about not to think negative thoughts actually leads to more accumulation of negative thoughts.
It’s the irony Dan Wegner told us on thought suppression. He asked participants to speak consciously of their thoughts for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear.
If it does come to mind, he told them to ring a bell.
Despite the instructions to avoid thinking about it, participants rang the bell more than once per minute, on average.
It’s obvious, the paradox of unwanted thoughts:
A part of your brain does resist thinking about the forbidden, but another part also keeps “checking” that you don’t think about it, therefore, ironically, bringing it up.
So, the more you try not to think about negativity, the more you think about it. The same goes with happiness.
The more you try to become happy, the less you are.
I know that positive thinking does make you feel better. And yes, it might. Sure it will.
But in the long run, it will lead you to feeling more distressed.
In his book, “The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, Oliver Burkeman highlights this.
When you think positively about the future, it results in you being less prepared now, and more worried later.
Worse, it leads to increased symptoms of depression.
I just want to clarify, I am not posing suffering in a romantic way.
I’m just telling to not see the glass half-full when it’s lying shattered on the floor.
Accepting things not as our minds pose them to be but as they actually are is not dumping positivism out of our lives. It’s creeping in realism.
The solution is not to lay hopeless. It’s to not decline pain, suffering and failures. Because, believe it or not, these are the things that actually makes you grow and learn.
You need to understand, it’s okay not to be okay. Follow the radical acceptance theory, which tells to accept problems rather than denying them.
There is no sense either, in denying problems. Problems make you flourish and take you out of your comfort zone. They make you grow into a stronger and better person.
Instead of wishing for great rewards, wish for good problems. We all need suffering in our lives.
Think of the worse that could happen and stay prepared for it. If not, you might end up getting disappointed and unsuccessful.
While positivism is a great thing to intricate in one’s life, it’s effects can be counter-intuitive.
Researches have shown that excess of positive perception could lead you to laziness in achieving your goals and a lower self esteem in those with already low boosts of confidence.
Believing things are good as they are makes us resist to making them better.
Positive thinking is amazing. But let’s get real: Positive thinking doesn’t fix problems.
It just makes you ignore them.
What are your thoughts about positive thinking? How has it affected your life?
I’d love to know in the comment section below!
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