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Could Positive Thinking Do More Harm Than Good?

Constant optimism and positive thinking could potentially harm us psychologically, since negative emotions can be just as important as positive ones.

By Rafael Euba
Oct 5, 2022 2:00 PMOct 5, 2022 8:53 PM
(Credit: eamesBot/Shutterstock)


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Chasing happiness can be like chasing an elusive ghost and some say they know how to obtain it through positive thinking.

Norman Vincent Peale popularized positive thinking with his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952. Some would say the book’s ideas have underpinned the self-help movement and are now embedded in our culture.

But what if the state of unremitting happiness is not natural? According to my book, You Are Not Meant To Be Happy, So Stop Trying, our genetic makeup instead discourages contentment since it lowers our guard against possible threats to our survival. We need negative, as well as positive emotions, to make it through life successfully.

Past research, as well as our own life experiences, can help us understand that an attitude of optimism and positive thinking isn’t the best psychological strategy available. Instead, a flexibly optimistic outlook is a better alternative and a more pragmatic option. Like most things in life, positivity can be good in moderation.

The Psychology Behind Positive Thinking

Prior to 1998, psychology and psychological medicine disproportionally focused on how to cure the negative ailments of the mind. But prominent psychologist M.E.P. Seligman, shifted this focus with the advent of positive psychology. Instead of treating mental illness, positive psychology would promote mental health, focusing on how to help people thrive.

With positive psychology and the recent growth of the optimism in society, advocated by professionals and those in social media, positive thinking has converted into an influential social phenomenon.

Most consider optimism as a good thing since it is a positive concept. Some studies have shown that optimism may be associated with better life outcomes, although the causal relationship in this association is difficult to prove. It could be possible that optimism may in many cases be the consequence of good life outcomes, and not the other way around.

Positive thinking is where humans think they can improve their lives irrespective of their external circumstances, by promoting an optimistic attitude and an internal “locus of control” (feeling in control of one’s life).

But by insisting that happiness is the responsibility of the individual, positive thinking can ignore the crucial social aspects of our wellbeing. It also can deny that none of us are ever in full control of our lives.

Some can argue that a therapeutic approach or philosophy that claims to offer a universal answer to pessimism indirectly blames the individual for their suffering. If a positive state of mind is always achievable, then any psychological pain must be the result of the individual’s inherent inadequacies. But sadness is not a failure; it is a natural and necessary emotion, which has an adaptive function when we are going through a significant loss or life challenge.

The Benefits of Negative Emotions

The version of positivity found in social media encourages us to believe in ourselves and persevere in the face of unfavorable odds. But this could instead damage our mental health in the long run.

Positive thinking can generate complacency. Research has found that positive fantasies that idealize the future are inversely related to achievement. The possible explanation for this phenomenon is that fantasizing a positive outcome in each endeavor may drain from us the energy we would need to achieve that goal. The positive fantasy makes us feel good and feeling good is what matters at the end of the day, so we don’t bother investing effort into the objective itself.

But sadness in times of adversity can carry an evolutionary advantage. Defensive pessimism can use low expectations to an advantage by anticipating failure, which is more tolerable than the pain of an unexpected failure.

This suggests that there are psychological advantages to accepting the darker side of life. Without this acceptance, the clash between constant optimism and the realities of our existence may come with a heavy psychological price.

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