Positive Thinking Day – Accentuate the positive (but acknowledge the negative…)

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.
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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…

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