Why it’s time to rethink positive thinking

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  • Despite an onslaught of self-help books, Insta-inspo posts and TED talks urging us to 'manifest our dreams', research reveals a very real problem with positive thinking: it doesn't work. Here, Clare Thorp explores why we all need a little negativity in our lives to actually reach our goals

    ‘Impossible is just an opinion’

    ‘What you think, you become’

    ‘Believe and you’re half way there’

    ‘When you focus on the good, the good gets better’

    If you’ve suffered any setbacks or disappointments, chances are you’ve come across these mantras. Perhaps you’ve even read them on Pinterest; on Instagram; a mug or a tote. Positivity, it seems, is everywhere.

    Because when you think positively, good things happen, right? That’s what several decades of self-help books and millions of inspirational Insta quotes have told us – and we can’t get enough of it. Earlier this year, Pinterest revealed that searches for ‘positive quotes to live by’ had increased by 279 per cent in one year.

    Positive thinking is about far more than quotes, though. It’s a whole movement that kicked off back in the 1950s with the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking and is now a multi-billion dollar industry of books, coaches, TED talks and podcasts teaching us to be happy. More than 30 million people bought Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book The Secret (spoiler: the secret is that positive thinking brings positive things).

    Of course, there are always cynics (me included), who are dubious about how far positivity will actually get you. One friend of mine has a strict policy of unfollowing anyone who posts a positive platitude on social media. ‘Why are they always in such a horrendously twee font, too?’ she wails.

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    Another friend sees them as ‘a nice antidote to all the political shouting’ and on a par with friend’s baby photos – only annoying when you’re spammed with too many of them.

    Even if you don’t believe in positivity, it’s pretty harmless though. Isn’t it? In her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, writer Barbara Ehrenreich alleges the head of Lehman Brothers was such a fan of positivity he refused to allow any negative thoughts in the workplace – including those from employees warning him of the impending 2008 financial crisis. And we all know how that worked out.

    There’s also an increasing body of research that shows negative thoughts might not be so bad for us after all. A recent study that examined pep talks in sports teams found that those told theyre doing badly and need to buck up go on to do a lot better than those fed ‘youre doing great, you can do this’ boot-room banter. This follows a study that also found positive affirmations like ‘I am lovable’ and ‘I will succeed’ only helped those who already possessed good self-esteem. For those who didn’t, it actually made them feel worse.

    If you’re someone drawn towards anxious thoughts, positive thinking isn’t a quick fix – in fact, it could make you feel shame when it doesn’t work for you. Try too hard to suppress negative emotions, and you also run the risk of feeling worse.

    Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, says positive thinking on its own is not enough to help us reach our goals.  ‘It can be very helpful when you want to improve your mood in the moment or feel out the possibilities of the future,’ she says. ‘But when it comes to actually implementing these possibilities it is an impediment.’

    Oettingen points to research she conducted that found the more positive people felt about attaining success in a weight-reduction programme, the less weight they lost, as well as another study that showed that students who positively fantasied about getting a job ended up earning less and receiving fewer job offers than those more doubtful about their future. Research also shows that people who dream of an ideal future are more likely to get depressed in the long term.

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    And the reason for this is that the more we fantasise, the less effort we actually put into trying to achieve our goals. In effect, our brain is tricked into a false sense of accomplishment. ‘Its very pleasant in the moment to imagine that youre doing all these things,’ Oettingen explains. ‘But the problem is that these fantasies about the future actually zap our energy.’ 

    However, banishing positive thoughts to dwell solely on negative ones isnt a solution either, she says – especially as fantasies about our future usually indicate our needs and desires. 

    Instead, the answer is something called ‘mental contrasting’. It means every time we think of a positive ambition, we should also consider the obstacles in the way. By grounding our dreams in reality like this, were more likely to achieve them. ‘Once youve identified and imagined the inner obstacle, then you get the energy to overcome it,’ Oettingen explains. ‘Because you realise that youre not there yet and you also realise what you can do in order to overcome that obstacle.’

    Oettingen took this idea further and developed the strategy WOOP – which stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, plan – to help people turn their dreams into achievable goals. Really thinking about what stands in your way and what it will take to overcome any challenge isnt negative thinking – it just gives us a more realistic shot. ‘It allows you to engage with wish fulfillments that are actually possible.’

    So, if a portion of positivity gets you through the day then carry on. Just make sure to counter it with a decent dose of reality, too. 

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