For years, the hype about the “power of positive thinking” as a way to find wealth, success, love, friendships, health and longevity has been steadily increasing. But before you drink the happiness kool-aid, consider these five big problems with positive thinking:
1. It could be used to make the unwell feel worse. In her book, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America,” Barbara Ehrenreich speaks about her personal bout with cancer. In her experience, the positive thinking movement leads people who are having hard times to believe they have brought it upon themselves (perhaps because they did not think happy enough thoughts.) When someone is hurt, injured, or sick, anger and sadness are rational emotions for people to have. Even among healthy populations, psychologists are finding that trying to be happy can make you miserable.
2. The public consumption of happiness prescriptions far outstrips the research. The media jumps on snippets of research suggesting that happiness leads to greater health and longevity. They do this because the “don’t worry be happy” message is appealing to consumers. Everyone wants to believe they could have greater control over their lives by simply changing the way they think. Research that supports this idea gets promoted loudly and widely. Non-scientist consumers mistakenly judge the findings based on the amplitude of the exposure, rather than on the strength of the research.
3. It could be used to manipulate the work force. Another valid criticism of positive thinking is that it is a convenient tool for governments and corporations to control the minds of the masses. Encouraging people to maintain a happy outlook in the face of less-than-ideal conditions is a good way of keeping citizens under control in spite of severe societal problems, or keeping employees productive while keeping pay and benefits low.
4. It ignores “psychological flexibility.” Psychological flexibility is the ability to tap into the psychological resources that we have at the times when we most need them. This theory rejects the notion that we should all be striving for greater optimism and more positive thinking styles. Rather, we should be grooming our understanding of when it is best to use optimism and when is it best to use pessimism. All of our emotions serve us in some way, so rather than focusing on positive emotions, we should use the entire spectrum of emotional responses that we have at our disposal, continually improving our abilities to use the right ones in the right situations.
5. It’s annoying. “Pollyanna.” “Do-gooder.” “Goody two shoes.” These are just some of the disparaging nicknames that we have for people who annoy us with their positivity. Sometimes we enjoy the cathartic relief of seeing that other people are just as miserable as we are, or even the perverse schadenfreude joy we get when watching other people fail. Being too positive could make those around us feel worse about themselves—and probably send them looking for other, more cynical friends.
These are all valid criticisms of positive thinking, and they should be taken into consideration. But here’s why I think positivity still wins in the end:
1. It could help make the sick well. There is enough evidence linking happiness to health, immunity and longevity to make us take happiness seriously.
2. The research is new but growing. Although the research on positive emotions is far less compelling than you might believe as you stroll through the “self-help” section of the bookstore, there is enough evidence accumulating to suggest that positive emotions, using strengths, expressing gratitude and connecting with others are all generally good for us. Psychologists will be working out the details for centuries to come.
3. I’d rather be happy. Although happiness interventions could be used for manipulative purposes, chances are they would no longer work. I want my employer and my government to be concerned for my psychological wellbeing.
4. A little positivity is needed to balance our inherent negativity bias. I am in full agreement with the concept of psychological flexibility. And we shouldn’t turn our backs on negative emotions. But people tend to notice the negative sooner and stay on it longer (an evolutionary tool that came in handy when stress signaled matters of life or death.) While staying flexible and in tune with our full spectrum of emotions, a conscious effort to let negative thoughts go and linger on positive ones can counteract our biases and bring us more peace.
5. Negative people are annoying too. “Debbie Downer.” “Negative Nellie” “Whiner.” “Victim.” “Energy Vampire.” These are some of the epithets for people who spend too much time on the dark side. There are ways to be positive without being annoying. When people are kind, funny, compassionate, inspiring, and optimistic they draw others to them and bring out the best in those around them.
There are big problems with positive thinking–it is not “the secret” holy grail of success in life. Mindlessly pursuing happiness is a pathway to disappointment. That being said, you can remain positive without falling into the traps listed above. A recent NewScientist article, “How to be happy (but not too much)” does a good job of sharing research that guides us along this middle path of a healthy happiness. I like to think of it as tilting toward the positive: remaining mindful, aware, curious and appreciative . . . and keeping a smile on your face.
References and recommended reading:
Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Picador.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. Crown Archetype.
Jones, D. (September 28, 2010). How to be happy (but not too much). NewScientist, 2779 (from http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727791.000-how-to-be-happy-but-not-too-much.html.)