Today is Positive Thinking Day. The day reminding you that if you can think it, you can do it. That if you smile and focus on positive thoughts, you will feel better. That you need to visualise success in order to achieve it.

Yeah right…

The ‘power of positive thinking’ has been one of the most jumped-upon bandwagons ever in motivational pop-psychology – so simple, such a positive message. Try a Google or Amazon search for ‘positive thinking’ and you will be inundated with self-help books, courses, motivational posters, famous quotes, you name it.

“Happiness is evolution’s way of saying, go out and discover new things. Go play, go explore” – Adam Anderson Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience at the University of Toronto.
(© All Rights Reserved)

It all started as a legitimate new field of psychology in the 90’s, known as Positive Psychology, led by the likes of psychologist Martin Seligman. Where much of the the focus in psychology had historically been rather negative (mental illness, addiction, etc), the idea behind positive psychology was to explore and better understand positive aspects such as happiness, virtue, resilience and optimism. The idea was never, however, to advocate indiscriminate, mindless optimism  – even Seligman long ago expressed the warning that optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity”.

Many aspects of positive psychology struck an obvious chord with motivational speakers, self-help authors and the like, and soon positive thinking went from one weapon in the psychologist’s arsenal to the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems.

As such it’s not surprising that there has been a bit of a backlash from the scientific community to the magical magnificence of positive thinking. For example, some of the literature showing the correlation between a positive attitude and good health, may have stretched things a bit by using this relationship to support the claim that a positive attitude will result in improved health. Yes, there seems to be a clear correlation between attitude and health, but little prove of causality. Does positive thinking cause good health, or does good health result in a positive attitude? Or can it be that there is no causative relation between health and attitude at all, and that it is just that a specific subset of people in society (perhaps those with, for example, naturally high energy levels) happen to exhibit both good health and a generally positive attitude.

A healthy dose of pessimism or negativity may also help us identify potential challenges we face in pursuing our goals, which may help us better prepare for these eventualities, thereby actually increasing our chances of success.

Researchers at Wellesley College have found that forcing people out of their natural attitudinal state may have a detrimental effect on their performance – a group of defensive pessimists who were forced to try and change their attitude and ‘cheer up’ actually performed worse at subsequent tasks. A 2001 study by Seligman and Isaacowitz, involving participants from an elderly community, also found that the pessimists in the group were less likely than the optimists to fall into depression after experiencing negative life events such as the death of a partner or good friend.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in the field of positive psychology, with psychologists like Canadian Jamie Gruman, co-founder of the new Canadian Positive Psychology Association, again promoting the study of human well-being and happiness and emphasizing strengths rather than ailments. The new proponents of the field are careful, however, not to be seen as just another ‘lollipops-and-rainbows’ approach, but rather to promote a balanced approach to living a positive life.

So, I guess the message on Positive Thinking day should be to think as positively as you feel comfortable doing. Even if positive thinking may not necessarily be the magical prescription for good health and a long happy life, I am at least not aware of any studies showing that being positive may actually be bad for your health.

Except of course if you go happily venturing down dodgy, dark and dangerous alleyways because of your unshakably optimistic belief in the goodness of your fellow man…  Or if your unflinching positivity starts driving your less flowery fellow workers to physical violence…

Whichever way you roll, here’s a little song (a wonderful new version of an old classic) to brighten your day. Happy Positive Thinking Day everyone…

Sources:
Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? Scientific American.
Canadian social psychologist proposes science of positive thinking. The Vancouver Sun.

 

10 Comments

  1. I love this! I feel that positive thinking and positive psychology and the freaking law of attraction have been blown way out of proportion.
    It is like herbalism, as well. There is some inherent beauty and wisdom to all of them, and yet, in lazy culture, people like to turn things into lazy replacements for their original lazy ideas.
    Instead of taking aspirin every day, take some herbal extract and feel good about your choice- except you are still just taking a pill and not going to find the actual plant and make the medicine. Instead of feeling pessimistic and critical, feel happy and forced-joyful and get critical that not everyone is jumping on your law-of-attraction bandwagon and trying to make money by putting up pictures on a peg board of dollar signs and mansions.
    It’s crazyness.
    I like that you site actual sources. Bravo, I’m glad I found your blog!

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback, Jennifer, and for the kind words about this blog.
      I like your comment about the lazy culture looking for lazy replacements for their lazy ideas. 🙂
      Had a look at your blog too – good stuff, I will definitely return!

  2. Gee, I was really tempted to add the clip of ‘Always Look on the Bright SIde of Life’ to my comment 🙂

    I am a silver lining kind of person but I think that ignoring the dark clouds that come along with them means you are not living in reality.

    1. Love that clip – it never fails to amuse! Did you see Eric Idle’s performance at the Olympic closing ceremony?
      I personally also prefer keeping my eye on the silver lining, but I think the important thing is to remember that a cloud consists of more than the lining! 🙂

      1. No, I didn’t. I admit that I avoided the olympics altogether!
        To me the dark cloud is the thing that makes the lining all the shinier. Mindless optimism does drive me crazy though, it is like a person who is happy on a Monday morning!

  3. I’m pretty dubious about the positivity stuff, but I admit to following the lead of a college pal of mine – “look good, feel good, do good” was his motto as he wore a suit & tie to exams.

    And metan – it’s always a good idea to include that clip! I think I’ll go watch it now.

  4. Well said. I have a serious, incurable disease and it really p***s me off when people demand ‘positive attitude’. Those demands might comfort the people who make them but they don’t comfort me! Crip-friendly practical arrangements are far more to the point.

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