“Plug ‘positive thinking’ into Amazon.com, and you will find a never-ending supply of products designed to help us see life through rose-colored lenses, including ‘Power of Positive Thinking’ wall calendars and an ‘Overcoming Adversity with Encouragement and Affirmation’ poster series.”
– Scientific American
Positive thinking. Our culture is awash in a seemingly infinite sea of it, but is it such a good thing? From cherry-picked Bible verses to uplifting Facebook quotes, motivational posters, The Secret, Dr. Phil, and Oprah, it’s clear that our modern culture has embraced the power of positive thinking in a BIG way.
But is “thinking positive” always such a good thing? Are there any downsides to living in a culture of positive thinking?
How our culture of positive thinking went legit
Psychologist Michael Scheier from Carnegie Mellon University is one of the people who gave thinking happy thoughts scientific credibility. In 1985, he and Charles Carver published a study called Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies.
Since then, the study has been referenced in over 3,000 other published works, and has provided the foundation for other researchers to begin exploring the “healing powers” of positive thinking.
And we love it! As a culture, we’ve embraced the idea that positive thinking can affect our health, how much money we make, who we marry, how well our kids perform, and the win / lose ratio of our favorite sports teams. Some make whole careers of positive thinking that are akin to guru hood, and a few have gotten fabulously wealthy by promoting the idea that thinking good thoughts actually materializes good things into our lives (think Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, and Deepak Chopra).
However, other data suggests that a culture of positive thinking might not be such a good thing after all.
Other research indicates the truth about postitive thinking is more complicated
Some studies suggest that too much positive thinking impedes taking action, and action is a far more accurate predictor of success than are happy thoughts.
Social psychologist Gabriele Oettingen asked German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, she found that the students who’d harbored the most positive fantasies had put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and earned less money.
Others feel that focusing on positive outcomes is akin to living in a fantasy world. Heather Barry Kappes, professor at the London School of Economics, says that, “imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve.”
Positive thinking, then, can become a trap, almost a type of learned helplessness. One of the founders of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, even warned that relentless optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity.”
The dark side of a culture of positive thinking
Author Barbara Ehrenreich has become one of the go-to leaders of backlash thinking about the positivism movement. In this entertaining (and informative) video by RSA Animate, she explains how overly cheerful cultural attitudes can hurt people going through common life challenges:
There’s nothing wrong with expecting and wanting good things in life . And no one mentioned here is advocating for pessimism, depression, or anxiety. But real life comes with harsh realities that can’t always be made better with a dose of good thoughts.
“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”
– Oliver Burkeman
This is not “being a downer” or a “negative Nelly.” In fact, it may just be our humanness coming though.