5 Big Problems with Positive Thinking (And Why You Should Do It Anyway)

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Jon McGovern

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.)

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33 Responses to 5 Big Problems with Positive Thinking (And Why You Should Do It Anyway)

  1. Edward Whiting October 5, 2010 at 10:47 am #

    Great article Jeremy! Wether it be positive or negative thinking, too much of it is not good. I believe that we should all keep our emotions and thoughts on a well-balanced perspective.

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar October 5, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    Love your points 3 and 5! There are some people in my life that I love but avoid every now and then because they can’t keep themselves from complaining all the time, and it’s an energy-drainer! So if I risk being annoying, I’d rather be happy doing it!! Ha-ha-ha!!

    MarieJ

  3. Lisa Sansom October 5, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    I love this – very well-put! I wish everyone would read it! I’ll be sharing it as widely as I can for sure! Pos psych is no quick fix – and it shouldn’t be!

  4. mama-san October 5, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    It seems to me that getting happy is a process that requires clearing what’s in the way of
    feeling happy or of gradually thinking better thoughts about your circumstances to elevate
    your mood. There’s mischief in assuming that you can go from sad to happy with a mere
    snap of the fingers or simply talk yourself into it. Like a sidewinder you can, however, think
    one thought that feels a little better than your last one, and then another thought that feels
    better still and so on. It does require some discipline over your thinking process and the practice of choosing thoughts that feel good. Sometimes though we like to indulge in
    complaining and wallowing in our woes. It all comes with the scottie dog!
    I love that you’re thinking about it and writing about it and giving us food for thought!
    Bless you sweetie.

  5. Jason M. October 8, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    You neglected to mention the classic critique of positive thinking: That if you think positively even in lousy circumstances, you may be less motivated to do something about changing what might be lousy.

    And the positive defense to that critique? Your circumstances arent what make you happy or sad, but rather, its how you think about them that sets your compass.

    I consider myself very lucky that I typically can “let go” of disappointments quickly or be happy even in the face of lousy circumstances. Some people seem to be mentally or physically incapabale of those luxuries. The question is I have is, if I were highly anguished by these disappointments, would I live with them less and act more agressively to correct them…and would that path lead to higher net levels of happiness in the end or not?

  6. Marie-Josee Shaar October 8, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    I think it’s comfort that makes us less likely to take action when things are lousy – not happiness.
    MarieJ

  7. Jeremy McCarthy October 8, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    Jason, I may not have expressed it as explicitly or as clearly as you do in your comment but this is the idea of psychological flexibility. Our negative emotions serve us in many ways, one of which is motivating us to do things to improve our situation. So the question is when is the right time to use anger, sadness, regret, etc. to our advantage so we learn from our mistakes, correct them, and improve our lot in life. With this mindset you would say the ultimate virtue is not happiness, or optimism, but rather prudence in knowing what emotions to draw from and how to behave in different circumstances.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy October 8, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    Hi MarieJ!
    I think you bring up an important distinction between pleasure and happiness. Happiness and other positive emotions do motivate us also, driving us to seek out more of the experiences that elicit them. But comfort, as you suggest, usually represents something we have adapted to and is therefore no longer appreciated or even noticed. It only becomes a motivator once it is removed (i.e. discomfort is motivating but comfort is not.) I hope I am capturing your thought correctly! Thanks, J

  9. Steven October 11, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Awesome post! I think the “Positive Thinking” philosophy also tends to ignore that negative emotions are important warning signs. Without them, we don’t know how to correct our behaviors and adapt in more efficient ways. It’s like a person being born without pain and not realizing when his hand is on a hot stove. There are good things about certain aspects of suffering.

    Looking forward to reading more soon!

  10. Jeremy McCarthy October 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    HI Steven, good point. When I saw your comment, I went to grab a link to Jules Evan’s latest blog but I saw you had already been there! For others I’ll post the link here: http://www.politicsofwellbeing.com/2010/10/positive-psychology-versus-behavioural.html. His article implies that pushing positivity people could be a form of “cognitive distortion” and questions the goal of positive psychology “is it trying to teach people to think accurately about themselves or the world, or optimistically? Does it believe it’s better to believe an optimistic fallacy than an accurate (but perhaps less uplifting) truth?”

    I think it wants to do the former but it assumes that much of our negativity is cognitive distortion that should be corrected. Sometimes this is probably true . . . but not always.

  11. Jules Evans October 12, 2010 at 1:36 am #

    Hi Jeremy

    Love the blog! Will enjoy following it, and thanks for the links to my stuff.

    I agree with you – positive psychology has found some good ways of generating positive feelings, and thats a good thing. I’ve tried some of their interventions, like the Gratitude Journal and and the Happiness Album, via Sonja Lyubomirsky’s iphone app, Live Happy, and I did indeed feel happier after a few weeks.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think we should take an All or Nothing approach to Positive Psychology – either we accept it wholeheartedly and defend it to the death, or we reject it wholeheartedly.

    There are some areas where I think Positive Psychology may have got it wrong.

    Firstly, I am uncomfortable with their thinking on Attribution Style. As I wrote in my post, Positive Psychology teaches young people to take the credit for successes, while blaming failures on external factors.

    This is dangerous and wrong, and I think history will marvel that we let psychologists teach this way of thinking in, for example, the US Army (which as I’m sure you know recently introduced a Positive Psychology programme for all its soldiers).

    I’m sure depressed people blame themselves too often for things that aren’t their fault. But we’re not all depressed. And we shouldn’t try to make everyone into egocentric fools who are blind to their own mistakes.

    Part of being a successful human being is recognizing when you screwed up. And part of being a likeable and loveable human being is being able to own up to your mistakes rather than always making excuses.

    I think that’s the most important way Positive Psychology gets it wrong.

    But my other main problem with it is I don’t think it can really ‘measure’ the Good Life, as it claims to do. I don’t think you can measure whether a life is meaningful or not. You can measure how pleasant someone feels, you can measure how absorbed in a task someone is – and these might be part of a Good Life, but they might not be. On their own, they are not necessary or sufficient for a Good Life.

    So I guess I am sceptical of the idea of arriving at some perfect scientific formula for the Good Life. I think that’s over-reaching.

    Looking forward to more discussions,

    Jules

  12. Jeremy McCarthy October 12, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    Thanks Jules,

    I love getting your thoughts on this. From reading your blog, I always appreciate the unique perspective you bring with your understanding of philosophy and all the different genres of applied psychology. My blog typically does try to find the middle path where I think the truth lies and avoid that “all or nothing” extremism that I see debated about in a lot of other forums. Where we agree here is that psychology should not aim to simply replace one set of cognitive distortions with another. But I think a lot of the research on optimism and attributional style is not intended to replace realistic pessimism with false optimism. When done right, it gives people tools to challenge their beliefs and hopefully find a. the truth where it’s available and b. where it’s not available a mindset that serves the individual. But I also think that due to the questions that you raise and some of the other concerns in my article, optimism is losing favor as the key secret ingredient to the good life and we will see mindfulness and psychological flexibility come to the forefront.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion, I love your input!

  13. Marie-Josee Shaar October 12, 2010 at 10:48 am #

    I completely agree with Jules that flexibility in how we thing about PP is needed. Like anything else in life, it’s not perfect and not all of it is equally useful. I’m personally not a huge fan of optimism training either – if the problem is with how you think, trying to resolve this issue with yet more thinking doesn’t work for everyone (ex: me! I’m sorry to say that some of those skills work for me, and others feel like a lot of mental effort for little result)!

    However, even with my not being a huge fan, I do want to bring an important clarification. Being a trainer facilitator in the Penn resilience program, I can attest to the fact that PP doesn’t teach people to take attribution for what goes right and blame what goes wrong on others. It teaches flexibility in our thought processes, so we can better evaluate alternatives and bring things back in perspective when our judgment is clouded by personal biases. So someone who is depressed can see that the whole world won’t come to an end through their own fault, and egocentric individuals can also see what others contribute. The fact that we frame the skill in an optimism training may lead to a greater emphasis on the former, but the latter situation is just as important – and the lead authors in PP don’t deny that.

    Hope that helps!
    MarieJ

  14. Jules Evans October 13, 2010 at 3:30 am #

    Hi Marie

    I think thats the point – PP is trying to teach an optimistic mind set, not a realistic one. And PP discovered that optimists do tend to take credit for successes while blaming failures on external factors. So PP does try and teach this thinking style – I’ve seen it be taught by teachers in the UK resilience programme in schools, to 11 year olds.

    You’re right, that Seligman wants to teach ‘flexible optimism’, not rigid optimism. He recognizes that optimism could sometimes involve taking unnecessary risks. But he thinks that would only happen very rarely. He’d far rather we err on the side of the optimistic than the pessimistic.

    And the subtleties of his approach tend to be lost when PP is being taught in schools and the army.

    Have you heard of someone called James Stockdale? He was a fighter pilot, captured by the VietCong, imprisoned and tortured for seven years, who survived the experience and even flourished partly because he’d read and memorized Epictetus – the Stoic philosopher who inspired Albert Ellis to invent CBT. They named the Navy Seal SERE school in San Diego after him, by the way.

    Anyway, Stockdale was once asked which group found it hardest to survive the POW camp. He said:

    ‘Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’

    I think this is an area where PP needs to be careful. Because soldiers are in life threatening situations ever day – so an over-optimistic attitude could actually be a killer.

    Enjoying the discussion, thanks guys, I look forward to talking to you more.

    Best

    Jules

  15. Jeremy McCarthy October 13, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    I forgot about James Stockdale, that’s a great story. I am always cautioning my fiancee about being too optimistic. She doesn’t bring an umbrella, doesn’t pack a sweater, paddles out into waves that are too big for her (at great personal jeopardy), assumes she won’t hit traffic and will find a great parking spot. All of these things drive me crazy because they lead to potential frustration, challenges and even danger. I think my point is that just because there are risks of optimism, doesn’t mean we should all become cynical skeptical pessimists. It is not only depressed people who ruminate on negativity that they shouldn’t or catastrophize mountains out of mole hills. So I’m curious . . . what do you think about the idea of just “tilting toward the positive”? With restraint, with awareness of the risks, while being realistic, but while you are traversing that middle grey area, hug the positive side of the street. This is where the “realistic optimism” comes in. Thoughts?

  16. Marie-Josee Shaar October 13, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    I like it, Jeremy! ;-)
    MarieJ

  17. Jules Evans October 14, 2010 at 6:16 am #

    Yes, sounds good to me. I’m also all for cultivating positive emotions, cultivating gratitude, savouring whats good in one’s life, trying to see the world with wonder each day. So yes, I’m all for tilting to the positive.

  18. Todd I. Stark January 1, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Nice job. To me these points reinforce my feeling that the search for a single optimum perspective on the world is inherently problematic. Optimistic, realistic, and even cynical perspectives can all offer guidance and worthwhile inspiration and none of them is a panacea for life guidance under all conditions. When you look at all of the digital and literal ink spilled supporting hyper-rationalist, scientistic, or cynical thinking above all else on the one hand, and superstitious, “faith-based,” rose-colored, even delusional thinking on the other hand, it is not at all obvious that this sort of middle path is appreciated or even considered very widely. Thanks very much for an inspiring example of smart reflection on the perspectives.

  19. Jeremy McCarthy January 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    Thanks Todd! We are definitely on the same page. One of the challenges I have with my blog is I usually want to find that middle path where I think the truth is. Unfortunately, this is not nearly as interesting or controversial as taking a stand on one extreme or another (so that is why most of our media and other sources of information are totally biased and inaccurate in their reporting.)

    I wrote a follow up post on Psychological Flexibility that you might enjoy as well: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201012/mental-yoga.html.

    Thanks for reading!

  20. Todd I. Stark January 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    @Jeremy: Thanks for the link, I did enjoy that article as well. You are so right that the ideal of intellectual nuance via navigating reflectively between extremes seems to make for particularly uninteresting commentary to most people in general, which is why I feel very compelled to show my own appreciation when I see it. It’s my belief that reflective intelligence is an acquired and somewhat uncommon taste. It’s hearwarming to find others from time to time who share it.

  21. Jeremy McCarthy January 1, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    @Todd: I really appreciate that! I’m glad we are connected now!

  22. Todd I. Stark January 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    @Jeremy: I hadn’t seen Todd Kashdan’s article on psychological flexibility, it’s valuable. Thanks. http://psychfaculty.gmu.edu/kashdan/publications/Kashdan%20&%20Rottenberg%20(2010)%20Psychological%20flexibility%20CPR.pdf

    @Anyone: If you have a sec to share your thoughts, what’s your sense so far of the relationship between the terms psychological flexibility, resilience, and mental toughness, and the concepts they represent? I’m trying to work through this since I’ve found the latter 2 to have significant value but I’m not as familiar with the uses of the first.

  23. Jeremy McCarthy January 3, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    Hi Todd, It’s a good question. I think of Resilience as a specific set of tools that help people deal with difficult situations. Psychological flexibility is more of an overarching idea that encompasses our ability to use all the tools we have at our disposal. Probably the tougher question is to make a distinction between resilience and “mental toughness” but I have not used or read about the latter phrase so I can’t help you there.

  24. Sara Firman November 9, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    This discussion leapt out at me this morning while browsing and I’m so glad to read it, especially since it lands at Jeremy’s final comment above on a key term I can relate to – that of ‘psychological flexibility’ (well developed also in Jeremy’s article ‘Mental Yoga’).

    My own proviso is to remember that scientific studies generalize and as such will always have a limitation when considering individuals – whose experiences in life are uniquely theirs to navigate. There may be interesting and even useful commonalities but …

    Someone who forgets their umbrella may not mind getting wet as much as the person who makes sure they always have one with them. Some may risk happiness for adventures into the unknown. Some may by chance be born into lives of great challenge….

  25. Kate Riley November 9, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    I would like to thank Sara for pointing me to this thread. I realize it is an older one, but I would like to offer this: Why do emotions/ ways of thinking need to be labeled as Positive or Negative? Perhaps they just are signals that ask us to stop for a moment and ask “What needs to be honored here?” When I was apprenticing with indigenous medicine people, one exercise we took part in at every workshop was to find the positive reason for negative emotions and vice versa. For instance, if I am angry, am I just venting, or is there an underlying reason that needs to be addressed? For instance, maybe the anger comes from having had my boundaries violated? Happiness can be soulful, or it can be merely a masking of other emotions/ issues that need attention. Even apathy has its place in the spectrum. I believe the reason we are here is to explore ourselves as human beings and allow the ebb and flow of emotion to guide us to fulfilling ourselves.

  26. Jeremy McCarthy November 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    Hi Kate, you bring up a great point. In fact, a recent article I wrote on Positive Psychology News Daily (“Defenders of Negativity” http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/jeremy-mccarthy/2011102819694) generated a huge discussion on this topic of positive vs. negative. When I refer to positive vs. negative I am referring to the subjective experience of certain feelings. In other words people enjoying feeling joy, love, gratitude, etc. and don’t enjoy feeling angry, sad, apathetic, etc. However, I agree with you–this shouldn’t imply that negative emotions cannot be healthy and have an important place in a rich, meaningful life. But I realize this is confusing which is what came out in the discussion on the PPND article. I will have another article coming out on this soon!

  27. Jeremy McCarthy November 9, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Sara, to amplify your comment, I think meaning and challenge quite often go hand in hand. You will rarely see someone deemed to have lived a meaningful life that was also a life of pure pleasure and positivity.

  28. Dr. Joyce R. Dickens February 4, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

    Great article-explain it well!
    Dr. Dickenss

  29. Gary Ares February 5, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    I am absolutely delighted to have found this blog, and all of the wonderful thinkers! A few ideas and personal experiences on the topic;

    Idea – anyone who dismisses or is opposed to positive thinking could benefit from an extended vacation to Haiti where if you are vertical it’s all good.
    Idea: the less than positive folks could adopt my mother’s view when she would say to me… “you think too much”. She was right, in that, I was far too left brained.
    Idea: as much as possible, it’s a good thing to base a conclusion on facts to help mitigate the bias affect.

    Over the past year I’ve been recovering from a 4 year bout with chronic depression and anxiety, spread nicely over the creamy center of lifelong ADHD… yummy. During the dark years, I did myself a great disservice by putting a rah-rah spin on everything. The “don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done” view, misapplied without proper and clear view of facts just made things worse for me.

    Over the past 4 months I accumulated a deeper and more scientifically proven under-standing of the mind-brain-body system. My formula is to let it do it’s best to reshape to nature’s intended perfection by meditating, eating healthier, exercising, socializing, and working daily to feel happy to be alive.

    Finally, I have just recently discovered my true purpose in life is to understand the inner workings of myself by the application of the knowledge I am obtaining daily, and then bring it to the masses. I want to serve people by helping them see and think in ways that improve their lives. Far too many people have been down so long, getting up ain’t even crossed their minds. That’s me 2 cents. Now I’m going get back to working to change things…. won’t you join me? Email me GaryAres at gmail

  30. Jeremy McCarthy February 6, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Thanks Gary! Welcome to the blog. Sounds like you’ll have lots to share from your experience and your current vision.

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