Have you ever told someone, or been told, to “think positive” as a solution to a problem? Or maybe identify as a pessimist or on optimist?
Personally, I try not to care too much for labels, but I know deep down I swing one way more than the other, which is glass half full. Well, I thought I did…
I used to always be the positive one (without even trying to be), I was just naturally drawn to helping people, constantly smiling and turning things into positives. Since getting older, it’s much harder to do all the time.
As you get older, experience more and grow, you gain more perspective. I started this blog because I wanted to be able to share my experiences (past and current), research and find solutions to the problems, experiment with them and share them. I want to be able to help myself (and anyone else I can) overcome mental barriers that are getting in the way of their life.
You quite quickly realise that not everyone wants to hear the positivity, or not everyone is as positive, or not every situation can be solved with a good ol’ positive attitude. There are some situations that just suck, and require so much more than an inspirational quote to get through.
Society today has become rid with inspirational quotes, positive affirmations, vision boards and self-help books. Some people swear by them, say they have changed their lives.
But have they really?
I love a lot of the positive thinking on the internet, but is it bad for us? I have such a curious and overactive mind that one quote doesn’t ‘solve’ things for me, but I take that quote away, think about it, write about it and it really helps me put things into perspective. But it doesn’t help ‘cure’ or ‘takeaway’ some of the bigger things I have to deal with, like anxiety and OCD.
But is all this positive thinking a bad thing?
I believe the danger with positive thinking is that it’s only putting a bandage on a problem, not looking below surface level for the root cause. This means that your problems may feel ‘fixed’, but this feeling is only temporary.
In some cases, positive quotes can really help, especially with everyday situations. But they are certainly not a cure to mental health problems.
Isn’t it the most frustrating thing when something bad happens, let’s say, you lose your job and someone says “just think positive”?
In their defence, there is some merit to it.
Some situations like this, in order to keep moving forward and not get sucked into a downward spiral, it is actually a great idea to look on the positive side. It’s an opportunity to learn from your experience, find another new opportunity (which could turn out even better, who knows). It can also help with overcoming obstacles like fear of failure or getting yourself out for a walk.
Thinking positive in these situations keeps you moving forward.
But would there be such a mental health crisis if positive thinking was such a good cure?
This leads nicely onto, is positive thinking a good or a bad thing? I’m going to dive into the advantages, the disadvantages and the view of psychologists.
Advantages of positive thinking
I personally think, from my own experience, there are some advantages to positive thinking:
- Provide perspective
- Help you cope with stressful situations
- Provide you with motivation
- Help boost productivity
- Help reduce self-hate and negative self-talk
- Raise self-awareness
- Help boost confidence
- Help us understand ourselves and our feelings
- Help us understand it is okay to take a break/prioritise ourselves
- Helps us know we are not alone in this world
- Motivate us to chase our dreams
I think it all comes back to 2 key points I raised above: perspective and self-awareness.
Negatives of positive thinking
From my own experience and research, the disadvantages of living off positive thoughts are:
- It doesn’t hold up/it’s not enough when something goes seriously wrong
- When it doesn’t hold up, we blame ourselves and think we have failed
- When we feel like failures, we feel we have nowhere to turn
- Seems like a quick fix (we all want immediate relief/gratification)
- It’s doesn’t deep dive into the root cause of the problem, only sticks a bandage on it (therefore we do not understand what we are going through or why)
- We think that ‘negative emotions’ are a bad thing, when they’re not, we can actually learn a lot from them
- Bottling things up can sometimes lead to bigger outbursts/break downs further down the line
- Makes it easier to avoid therapy (provides a good excuse not to go because we “don’t need it”)
- Makes us feel we can do it alone, when actually a support system is a really great thing to have
- There’s’ not enough research/studies on the effects for mental health
- People are capitalising on people with problems
- The people preaching this probably aren’t ‘okay’ themselves – you only see the highlights and therefore, set unrealistic expectations based on highlights on someone life
- Everyone is different, it might work for some but not for others. We all go through different things, have lived different lives. This means again we set ourselves unrealistic expectations
- Some of us are just not naturally optimistic, and that’s okay
- We don’t appreciate all the good
- We become less approachable/find others less approachable if we feel they are going to encroach positive and inspiration quotes on us
Happiness is a combination of biological and environmental factors. Happiness is a result of chemical and hormonal reactions, something we cannot control. But we can control who we surround ourselves with, what we tell ourselves and the daily actions that we take that will influence the levels of happiness.
Psychologists view on positive thinking
Psychologist Danial Kahneman suggests that we have a terrible understanding of what actually fulfils us. He looks at the two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. He believes that we do not think logically, and make bias decisions unconsciously. We made decisions based on limited information, heavily influenced by emotion and “quick fixes”.
Of course, I had to include Sigmund Freud.
According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behaviour. Like an iceberg, the biggest part of the mind is the part you cannot see. Our motives and decisions are influenced by our past experiences (which are stored in the unconscious). Mild emotional experiences may be in the preconscious, which ultimately affect our decision making.
However, Freud also contributed to positive psychology with his theories around mind alterations, by saying we can trick ourselves into something positive or negative. We can reconstruct events in our minds to keep ourselves happy. This was, however, labelled as a destructive shortly after.
Tasha Eurich concludes from her research that the more self-aware we are, the happier we are. This is because we are aware of our skills and capabilities that we can use to our advantage. However, sometimes we can take it a step too far and end up deluded.
In an interview with the Verge, Tasha said “Here’s an example: somebody is super deluded about their singing ability. They’re a pre-med student and going to quit their pre-med program to audition for The Voice, but they don’t make it past the first round. They feel horrible. They’ve changed the course of their life for this and it wasn’t a good choice.”
That’s the trap some people fall into with delusion, and also positive thinking. Up until the 1980’s there was research that showed positive thinking was good. Since then, studies have also shown that these individuals may actually be unhappy and less successful.
According to Eurich, one thing we need to be wary of is falling into the trap of overthinking. Our focus needs to be more on our everyday actions.
As a professor at the New York University and the University of Hamburg, Oettingen has concluded from her research that positive thinking makes you feel better in the short term, but can be counterproductive in the long term, leading to a lack of action and therefore, underperformance. This is because when you picture yourself achieving your goal, you are less likely to feel motivated to achieve them in real life.
I have left this until last as I don’t think he was a psychologist, he was actually a modern Stoic, but he raised a good point that was relevant to this article. He poses the question, what would you do if you woke up one day and everyone had gone. Does this change the things you would acquire for yourself?
This really makes you think about what is important to you, and why. Certain things might feel more important to you now, because of the societal expectations you are trying to meet.
This a game changer.
As you can probably tell, Stoicism was an ideal that came around after the war. Catastrophic events like that can really put things into perspective. However, this does also highlight that we can really take things for granted.
Another interesting view I thought would be good to include. Osho talks about positive thinking from a spiritual perspective. He believes that when you look at something in a more positive light, you are excluding an entire half of the situation. Osho believe that a “a half-truth is far more dangerous than a whole lie”
The positives of the negative thoughts
Negative thoughts or feelings are not as bad as we think they might be. They may not feel good at the time, but it’s a normal human emotion. It’s how we learn, grow, ask questions, build strength and courage.
Personally, negative emotions have allowed me to become stronger and more self-aware, I am much kinder to myself and have grown so much in the last few years. I grew strong enough to cut out toxicity from my life and learn how to handle myself.
Next time you are feeling negative emotions, rather than saying to yourself “just think positive, it’s fine”, explore the negative emotions. Why are you feeling this way? Are you in control of the situation?
Use positive thinking as a way to help with small, daily situations and hiccups. Just be careful you are not avoiding reality or some of the bigger problems. Seek a professional to assist with root cause/underlying issues/long term help.
What do you think about positive thinking?