Be Positive. The world is awash with advice that we should have a positive attitude. As one aphorism goes, if you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you can’t. From motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, to advice books like The Power of Positive Thinking, to repeating daily affirmations, everyone seems to be peddling positivity.
It turns out it might not work.
Canadian researchers asked people with high and low self-esteem to repeat “I am a lovable person” and then measured the participants’ feelings about themselves. The low self-esteem group felt worse about themselves afterwards. The research concluded: “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”
Similarly, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen found that visualizing a successful outcome, a common technique in sports psychology, can sometimes make people less likely to achieve the outcome. In an experiment, dehydrated participants were asked either to imagine drinking a glass of water or to picture another visual which would not quench their thirst. Afterwards, the researchers measured the participants’ blood pressure and found those that visualized drinking water had a significant decrease in energy levels. The researchers concluded that, by imagining that you had already achieved your goal, you were less likely to be motivated to achieve it.
If you are intrigued by this line of thinking, it’s worth reading Oliver Burkeman’s book ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’. The book claims that by worrying so much about being happy, we become less happy. Here’s Burkeman describing the issue:
Maybe Bobby McFerrin’s pop song had a deeper meaning: Don’t Worry, Be Happy.