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Bright and Shiny: Rethinking Positive Thinking

There has been much research conducted in the last few decades attempting to demonstrate statistically significant benefits of positive thinking. There have been some studies that look promising (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005; Fredrikson, 2003; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), along with those that show no effect (Goodhart, 1986), and studies that demonstrate negative effects associated with positive thinking (McGrath, Jordens, Montgomery, & Kerridge, 2006; Norem & Chang, 2002; Woodstock, 2007). As a result, researchers such as Martin E.P. Seligman (Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment) and Barbara Fredrickson (Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life) have focused on the results showing the benefits of positive thinking while researchers such as Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America) and Julie K. Norem (The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak) focused on the benefits of more realistic and even pessimistic thinking. So what's the deal? Is positive thinking effective or not?

Positive thinking undoubtedly results in increased positive emotion, which as we know, leads to greater well-being.  The question is, at what expense?  If positive thinking has associated costs to one or more of the other dimensions of well-being such as lowered achievement, we may want to reconsider our use of positive thinking—not in a binary "use it" or "don't use it" sense, but a "when to use" it sense.

Much of the debate in this area is a result of not clearly defining what is meant by "positive thinking" or "effective." Overall, people tend to have either a positive or negative disposition. What many people file under "positive thinking" could be better understood as five separate but related concepts that constitute a positive disposition. As we look at each concept, we will see that the "bright and shiny" approach to life can be both adaptive as well as maladaptive (terms I prefer to "effective") depending on the concept and the situation.

Optimism

Optimism can best be defined as a worldview that focuses on the positive side of a given situation. The classic example used is the glass that is either half full or half empty. The optimist will be more satisfied and less motivated to fill the glass where the pessimist will be less satisfied and more motivated to fill the glass. There are some situations where an optimistic outlook will lead to greater well-being, especially when dealing with past events or events which one cannot change. I call this rational optimism. A more pessimistic outlook can result in increased desire for change making a better outcome more likely. As a realist I see the glass as containing 50% liquid, then I adopt an optimistic or pessimistic view based on the situation and my desires.

Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)

Attitude is more about the expression of your feelings and emotions in a social situation. A PMA consists of enthusiasm, self-confidence, and a “I can do it!” approach to life. Popular belief tells us that most people find a positive mental attitude more attractive than a negative one, and this is one of the reasons why people who display a PMA tend to be more successful—they are the ones who get hired more often, get the promotions, and have a greater selection of life partners. I have been unable to find any research to support this claim. However, there is much research supporting the idea that people are attracted to others with similar personalities and dispositions (Figueredo, Sefcek, & Jones, 2006; Singh & Tan, 1992).

Since a PMA can lead to overconfidence and unrealistic assessments of situations, I prefer the “I’ll do my best” approach to the more common “I can do it!” approach. This more realistic approach, I believe, allows one to capitalize on the benefits of a PMA and keep clear of the maladaptive side effects.

Many people are unrealistically negative about what they think they cannot do—usually out of laziness or fear of failure. If you don’t believe you can do something, the chances are you won’t even bother trying, or you won’t see things through. The “I’ll do my best” approach does first require a belief that you can do what you are setting out to accomplish, but a belief is not the same as reality. You may fail. If you don’t fail often then you are not pushing yourself, and you are most likely capable of accomplishing so much more in life. Believing that you can do something does not mean that you have to pretend you can’t fail. I would be more than willing to bet at a casino where the odds were in my favor, even though I knew I could not always win.

A negative mental attitude may be an accurate reflection of one’s lack of skills, ability, talent, or education where an unjustified positive mental attitude may mask these deficiencies. You want a PMA as a result of a realistic self-assessment, otherwise, embrace the negativity and do something about it. Learn a new skill, practice more, or go back to school—just don’t sit around wallow in negativity.

Visualization

Visualization is a technique where you imagine yourself succeeding—it is a form of mental rehearsal or practice. This is a very empowering technique that leads to positive feelings, increased motivation, and improved results according to many studies (Ranganathan, Siemionow, Liu, Sahgal, & Yue, 2004). As long as one recognizes that this is a process of imagination and not some form of clairvoyance, it is harmless.

Positive Self-Talk (Affirmations)

Self-talk is your inner dialogue. It is the translation of your feelings, emotions, and desires into words, either spoken or thought. Most of our inner dialogue is a result of subconscious processes stemming from our feelings and emotions. Positive self-talk, or affirmations, is most often considered to be the conscious (deliberate) process stemming from our desires in an attempt to “trick” our mind in accepting our desires as facts, in other words, it is a form of self manipulation. There is very little evidence to support the effectiveness of affirmations and increasing evidences demonstrating the negative effects of this kind of self deception (“Why Don’t My Positive Affirmations Work?,” n.d.).

Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is a deliberate bias that causes us to view the world unrealistically in many cases. While this unrealistic view has been credited for increased chance taking that has led to successes, it also needs to be blamed for increased risky behavior that leads to terrible misfortune. We hear about the successes far more often than the misfortunes because bankrupt, homeless, or dead positive thinkers don’t write books about their failures due to positive thinking.

Positive thinking exists on three different levels that I will define as supernatural, objective, and affective.

Supernatural positive thinking breaks or ignores known natural laws to make the truth of the positive thought possible. For example, the belief that God wants you to be rich, the belief that God is looking out for your best interest, or the belief that the “universe” wants you get that new BMW. Supernatural positive thinking relies on either magic, divine intervention, or the unknown, such as the “mysteries of the universe”—often expressed as some form of pseudoscientific interpretation of quantum physics. This form of positive thinking has no basis in reality and is akin to faith and wishful thinking.

Objective positive thinking is holding a belief about the state of the known universe that can be proven to be contrary to the actual state of the universe. Your positive thinking may result in you holding the belief that you are wealthy enough to afford that new home and in good enough shape to run a marathon. Despite your positive thinking, the “universe” may ultimately prove you wrong by foreclosing on your house and making you pass out after the first mile in the marathon. No amount of positive thinking alone can change an objective state of the universe. Like supernatural positive thinking, objective positive thinking has no basis in reality.

Affective positive thinking is how you feel about yourself or events in life. This can be further broken down into affective-reflection, which is how you initially feel about yourself after an action or behavior or how you initially feel about an event, and affective-rumination, which is how you feel about yourself or an event in the long-term. By putting a positive spin on all affective-reflections, you deprive yourself of the learning opportunities that come from mistakes. Frustration and pain can be very useful in both learning and continual improvement. Very little good comes from negative affective-rumination or to put in other terms, dwelling on the negative. Here is where positive thinking plays and important part of self forgiveness, letting go of the past, and looking forward to the future.

To illustrate all these dimensions of positive thinking, imagine you are in your car, on a two-lane bidirectional highway. You are behind a slow-moving eighteen wheeler truck and you are deciding if you should pass or not. In the distance, you see another eighteen wheeler truck headed towards you in the lane you would use to pass. Do you pass or not? You may believe that you are blessed, and God is your copilot, therefore, no harm will come to you (supernatural). You may initially think “I can’t make it” only to catch yourself saying the C-word (can’t), then affirming, “I can do anything if I put my mind to it,” despite the truth of the physics involved that has plans to turn you into a pancake (objective). You go for the pass and get ran off the road, luckily escaping with your life intact. At this point, you can think positively and use self-talk affirming that you did the right thing by passing (e.g., "winners take risks, losers play it safe"), and deny any responsibility for the near-fatal failure, only to repeat the action in the near future (affective-reflection). In all these cases, positive thinking is maladaptive. In the first two cases, it is maladaptive by giving you a false sense of reality and in the third case, by blocking the negative feelings that would result in a new learned behavior (not taking stupid chances with your life). Positive thinking does have its place, however. We can go home and sink into depression about our stupidity that almost got us killed, or we can see it as a learning opportunity, learn our lesson, and move on (affective-rumination). Notice that in the case of affective-rumination, it is all about perception of a past event where a negative or pessimistic approach adds little to no value, nor does it change the reality of the situation, but it does significantly change the way we feel. This can also be seen as a form of resilience.

These days, it seems politically incorrect to question positive thinking. The self-help industry is full of gurus who make their money by making people feel good about themselves, despite the harm it may cause them. I cannot deny that negative thinking is a problem that must be addressed, but positive thinking is not the solution any more than obesity is the solution to anorexia. I propose a critical approach to thinking based on reality and free from biases. This kind of thinking does not require magic, gods, or a creative interpretation of quantum physics; it is compatible with objective reality, success, and even happiness.

Give it a try.

Action Items


Make a list of all the things in your life (past, present, and future) that result in negative emotions.  I know, this may be upsetting at first, but it will be worth it in the end.  Categorize each item into the following categories: "to change," "to learn," "to accept."  For those things that you can change and choose to invest the time and energy into changing, create a plan of action to change.  For those items in your "to learn" category, write what you can learn.  For those things in the "to accept" category, use your positive thinking and look for the proverbial silver lining—the positive in the negative, and focus on that positive from now on.

Example:

As I get older, my hair is starting to turn gray. 

Category: to accept

I can easily use one of the many hair coloring products for men if I wanted to "wash that gray right out of my hair," but I choose not to.  I am okay with getting gray hair because it does have social benefits in my profession (e.g., more credibility and more respect from peers).  My wife doesn't mind the gray, so why should I?


References
Figueredo, A. J., Sefcek, J. A., & Jones, D. N. (2006). The ideal romantic partner personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(3), 431–441. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.02.004
Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678–686. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678
Fredrikson, B. L. (2003). The Value of Positive Emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91. Retrieved from http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/the-value-of-positive-emotions/1
Goodhart, D. E. (1986). The effects of positive and negative thinking on performance in an achievement situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 117–124. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.51.1.117
McGrath, C., Jordens, C. F. C., Montgomery, K., & Kerridge, I. H. (2006). “Right” way to “do” illness? Thinking critically about positive thinking. Internal Medicine Journal, 36(10), 665–669. doi:10.1111/j.1445-5994.2006.01194.x
Norem, J. K., & Chang, E. C. (2002). The positive psychology of negative thinking. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 993–1001. doi:10.1002/jclp.10094
Ranganathan, V. K., Siemionow, V., Liu, J. Z., Sahgal, V., & Yue, G. H. (2004). From mental power to muscle power--gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia, 42(7), 944–956. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2003.11.018
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5
Singh, R., & Tan, L. S. C. (1992). Attitudes and attraction: A test of the similarity-attraction and dissimilarity-repulsion hypotheses. British Journal of Social Psychology, 31(3), 227–238. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.1992.tb00967.x
Why Don’t My Positive Affirmations Work? (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201210/why-dont-my-positive-affirmations-work
Woodstock, L. (2007). Think About It: The Misbegotten Promise of Positive Thinking Discourse. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 31(2), 166–189. doi:10.1177/0196859906298177



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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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