Positive thinking may not be all positive

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.

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One Response to Positive thinking may not be all positive

  1. Peter January 19, 2016 at 8:44 am #

    Jonathan, if you are suggesting that an affirmation is not causative, well that is one of those clear truths that butt up against confirmation bias.

    I’m thinking that your last two postings belong together. Will I use an affirmation and have faith? Or will I use it as the first step of the scientific process?

    I guess more important, when I coach my team, will I encourage them to build a way to Plan the affirmation as a measurable activity, Do what they had in mind, Check the results against the forecast, and then Adapt the affirmation and do another cycle?

    I get a lot of students who believe in affirmation, and mind over matter. I ask them to turn that belief to a scientific experiment that would work with Sagan’s book in your post from last week.

    It takes courage, but I ask that of students and clients and employees every day. Moving past affirmation takes courage, and you develop that by doing it, not saying it, no?

    In other words, I like these two postings as a pair. Thank you!

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