Thinking Positively Can Make You Feel Worse

By Alan Stewart Carl | Related entries in Culture, Science


In America, we tend to laud the optimist and shun the pessimist. Not surprisingly, we are inundated with bromides about positive thinking and self-affirmation. But, turns out, all that stuff might not work. A new study published in Psychological Science argues that forcing positive thoughts can have negative consequences.

I’ve always thought self affirmations were a load of crap. Of course, I get itchy anytime someone tries to convince me that the world is roses and bunny rabbits. It’s my personality. But apparently, I’m not alone. In fact, the positive-thinking study found that:

[U]nfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem — so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.

The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.

In other words, we need to learn to cope. Trying to force ourselves to be positive and happy just makes us realize how negative and unhappy we actually are. That’s not to say we should mope around and drink all day. But it is saying we shouldn’t feel bad for not being happy. Being functional is good enough.

And isn’t that wisdom for our new age?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 2009 and is filed under Culture, Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Thinking Positively Can Make You Feel Worse”

  1. michael reynolds Says:

    I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, and dog-gone it, people can’t stand me.

  2. Trescml Says:

    We are all dead in the end.

  3. gerryf Says:

    So, are you saying you’re pessimistic about optimism being bad for you or your optimistic that pessimism is good for you?

  4. Chris Says:

    isn’t this what the secret was? think positive? also my mother in law always tries to act positive even when in reality things are shitty, and I don’t know a more miserable person right now.

  5. rachel Says:

    Think of it this way: optimists mostly get unpleasant surprises.

  6. Political Pragmatist Says:

    The point was missed. Mindfulness and meditation can help in ways most people do not realize. I know it works.

  7. LeeMan Says:

    Part of your problem is that you weren’t persistent with the positive thinking. Not so much positive thinking, but more empowered thinking. I like that word better.
    But people that had bad beliefs and thoughts about the world around them for years built up, it will take ALOT of consistensy, YES, You will feel worse in the beginning, YES, you might get more depressed, but that’s all short term. Why, because all your old beliefs/ thoughts are being challenged.

    Look at you guys above, your comments aren’t helping Anything (and I wanted to say sh*t) Walk around with those beliefs and see how life works out for you. High value things like a Powerful optimistic carefree attitude WONT COME EASY. Nothing worth going after comes easy. and this is the Hardest thing you will ever have to do in your life. But it can be done.

    Here was my experience, when I started letting positive thoughts enter my mind, it felt awesome at first, then, like the next day, I felt awkward, negative, like shit. What do you think is going on there? Its like a war in your head, man its like taking a fresh man, and sending him into a hardcore prison cell. He’s most likely going. To get his a$$ kicked, and thwillys will feel stronger than ever. But eventually, the man will learn to start fighting, he has no choice. And they will move him to another prison, and he has more power, makes a few friends. Becomes the dominant thoughts in your mind. And more and more positive thoughts will take over, and your life will turn around. Months, up to a year to start permeating Your being. That’s depending on how messed up you are. Fact.

    Try it, force it, kill the resistance, and smooth it out. As for negative people and situations that come around (and they will) , use the phrase “that means nothing” “that is meaningless ” over and over in your head until you are detached from the negative. Remember a lot of people feel like crap and aren’t happy with their lives. And they are Quick to pass that negative energy on, its ok, because there. ARE different, better people that motivate and uplift. You have seen these people before.

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