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Water Cooler: Positive Psychology Backfire


It’s been a rough week. You got yelled at by your boss, your cat ran away and your car required an expensive repair. After venting to a friend about how this week really put you through the wringer and that you’re not in a great mood because of it, they tell you to “look on the bright side” or that “happiness is a choice.” Does their obstinate positivity make you feel encouraged or enraged?

How you respond to positive thinking depends on who you are as a person – your beliefs, cultural upbringing, value system, how you naturally cope and more. It also depends on the context and nuances of the situation at hand and what problems it presents for you to solve.

The more popular belief is that positive thinking always leads to better outcomes, such as recovery from illnesses or finding success in life. In reality, it is much more complicated. Positivity may work well for some, but in general the research shows that forced emotions can potentially backfire.

Within the world of psychology, this philosophy is called positive psychology. The term itself dates back to 1954 when American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who is famed for creating the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, published the first edition of “Motivation and Personality” with a final chapter titled “Toward Positive Psychology.” The chapter was removed in the second edition, but the general notion of this concept was that psychology had been consumed with the treatment of mental illness and should consider incorporating ways to promote good mental health and well-being. This idea flourished among humanistic psychologists and the field later became more popular in the 1980s and ’90s.

Studies began to come out in the mid-’80s that would correlate positive thinking with better physical and mental health which helped the positive psychology movement gain scientific credibility. By the ’90s, the tenets of this concept became widely accepted by the business world, some school systems and even the U.S. military as a way to improve performance, mental health and coping skills. Once this movement became established in the mainstream, it became removed from its original intentions for the study of psychology and oversimplified into the bite-sized, motivational poster philosophy that we know it as today.

When evaluating the studies that brought positive psychology widespread popularity, it is crucial to remember the age-old adage, “correlation does not equal causation.” A group of positive people in a study that exhibits better physical health than a group of negative people may imply that positivity is correlated with better health, but this correlation cannot be stretched as evidence that positivity causes better health. There are many other factors involved in physical health, and it is easy to turn this correlation the other way – it would not be at all surprising that good health was correlated with seeing the world in a more positive light.

Recent studies have shown that positive thinking techniques like visualization, which encourages individuals to imagine their perfect selves, having achieved the things they most desire in life, led to less action to achieve their goals.

A 1999 University of California study led by Lien Pham showed that students who spent a few minutes each day visualizing themselves achieving a higher grade on a test in the week leading up to it ended up studying less and obtaining worse grades compared to those who focused on good study habits instead.

A 2002 study led by Gabriele Oettingen of New York University as graduates to track how often they fantasized about obtaining their dream job after finishing college. It noted that those who thought about the future with positive fantasies (experiencing positive thoughts about their desired future) were less likely to apply for and obtain jobs than those who thought about the future with positive expectation (imagining a desired future as likely), because they in turn exhibited high amounts of effort in obtaining their dream jobs.

Positivity is often thought of in terms of dichotomy – positive outlook versus negative outlook. These studies reestablish the nuance in positivity, highlighting that depending on the way positive thought is used, it may or may not serve as motivation to seek positive action.

Positive thinking can also backfire in another way. Positive self-statements have been touted as a way to boost self-esteem and mood, but a 2009 study led by Joanne Wood showed that positive self-statements can at times be ineffective or even detrimental. It studied people who claimed to have low-self esteem and found that when asked to repeat a positive self-statement, such as “I’m a lovable person” they would get caught up whether or not that statement was true. The participants who reported already having high self-esteem did not focus so much on the truth of the statement. This showed that positive thinking, at least in the form of prescribed self-statements, had the potential to counterintuitively backfire on those who seemed to need to change their thinking the most.

A study titled “Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine,” published in 2010 by James C. Coyne and Howard Tennen, showed that while positive psychology became a popular recommendation to those who were ill because it upholds cultural values like “the fighting spirit,” there was no strong scientific evidence that showed positive psychology had a definite effect on the prognosis of cancer patients.

It can be hard to swallow that positivity isn’t a cure-all when it contradicts cultural values. American culture in particular places faith in optimism. This isn’t to say that positive thinking or outlook can’t be an influence for good, but it can be detrimental when positive thinking becomes a form of denial. Psychologists have found that feeling negativity can be a useful coping mechanism for processing adverse and unfavorable circumstances.

Studies have found that negative mood signals can benefit the brain’s systematic information processing, strengthening the ability to distinguish fact from fiction and form strong arguments. Negative moods can help you avoid making mistakes because your mind is processing all the worst-case scenarios. They can even help you remember certain things better because your brain will be hyperfocused on what information is relevant to the matter at hand and what is not. Of course, this can take a turn for the worse if your brain is in a constant state of stress or negativity and these functions go into a bit of a hyperdrive state, but it is important to recognize the instances when negative moods serve inherent functions.

That said, there are proven benefits to positive thinking and self-affirmation.

A 2015 study found through mapping neural activity that self-affirmations based on the participants’ values activated their brains’ reward center, and that in turn could motivate people to change their future behavior

This shows that when it comes to positive psychology, context matters. Reactions to positive or negative thinking are individually dependent on core values, belief systems, coping mechanisms, cultural upbringing and many other personal factors. Use whatever kind of thinking best helps you cope with a situation and let others do the same, because the facts show that the only certainty about optimism compared to pessimism is that it’s complicated.

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