The Power of Less-Positive Thinking
We consulted Google Trends to see which direction interest in positive thinking is headed. We couldn’t help but notice a downward trend this decade.
At the time of this writing, interest in positive thinking is about half of what it was near the beginning of 2010.
Popularized by author Norman Vincent Peale mid-last century, the so called Power of Positive Thinking has long had its adherents, and its detractors. To this day some people swear by it while others reject it. Science seems to support it, and to discredit it.
Here’s what two contemporary organizations have to say about positive thinking:
The Mayo Clinic highlights these positive things that are associated with positive thinking:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
On the other hand, the people at Imprific compiled research to come up with a list of negative outcomes of positive thinking:
- Makes achieving your goals more difficult
- Leads to self-accusations
- Results in suppressing your feelings
- Can lower your self-esteem.
- Can make you less happy.
- Makes you less likely to help others
- Makes you care less about your health
Who is Right?
Research supports the claims of each.
Let’s attempt to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory messages. We will do so by running through the negative outcome list above to determine which circumstances lead to positive thinking going wrong.
Makes achieving your goals more difficult.
Positive thinking can make your goals more difficult to achieve when the gap between your current level of success and your desired level of success is too big. In addition, positive thinking needs to be grounded in reality in order for it to work.
For example, working for minimum wage with zero savings while telling yourself, “One day I will be a millionaire” will set you up for huge disappointment. Not that you couldn’t ever become a millionaire, but it won’t happen by thinking yourself there.
A vague affirmation might give you just enough tension relief from your current financial woes to prevent you from taking any tangible action toward your goal. After all, why would you do anything to improve your minimum wage status if you already “know” that one day you’ll be a millionaire?
In contrast, saying “At this time next year I will have saved $5,000.” is a positive affirmation tied to a realistic goal. That is, assuming you have either enough income to make it happen, or a plan to generate the income you’ll need in order to set aside $5,000.
Positive thinking carried out this way will keep you in the mindset of saving for the future, and motivate you to take the necessary actions to earn enough money to do it.
Leads to self-accusations.
Self-accusations are a natural consequence of believing you have some influence over the universe with your thoughts, as some organizations teach. If you believe that sending positive vibrations into the universe makes you a magnet for all things positive, then the same must hold true for negative thoughts.
Since we all have a mixture of positive and negative thoughts and emotions, when bad things happen to us we could easily blame it on our lack of positivity or trace it back to some negative thought. That is, if we truly believe our thoughts somehow control the universe.
While it’s true that positivity is “contagious” in that it may influence the moods of those around us, lead to more positive outcomes, and even better relationships, its effects are largely confined to the people we interact with.
Results in suppressing your feelings.
When there is extreme discontinuity between what you think or say and how you really feel, you are not expressing your emotions in any healthy way. You may also be leaving your own needs unaddressed.
If you have the tendency to get upset easily, reframing would be an effective way to work through an unpleasant emotional state. Merely saying that you are “happy” while you are filled with rage will not magically make you happy.
Can lower your self-esteem.
If you believe you have low self esteem, trying to boost it directly may backfire, especially if you use pie in the sky affirmations that don’t reflect your present emotional status (e.g. “I am confident!” or “I am powerful!”).
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity, but boldly declaring something you don’t believe to be true–isn’t positivity. It’s lying.
An example of a more truthful statement that might help get you through the worst of times is, “I have people in my life who love me and care about me.” When someone loves you it is true whether you can feel it or not, and it’s a good idea to remind yourself of this often.
On the other hand, “confident” and “powerful” are primarily emotional states, and claiming that you are either “confident” or “powerful” while you’re not feeling it might serve to remind you just how non-confident and non-powerful you feel. Then you’ll feel worse.
Can make you less happy.
How can positive thinking both increase our psychological well-being and make us less happy?
Maintaining a positive attitude and habitually practicing positive affirmations leads to better physical and psychological well-being overall.
But sometimes it doesn’t:
On a scale of 1 to 10 let’s say your level of well-being at this moment is 6. You could easily boost this to a 7 by acting as if you’re already at 7, or creating a few positive thoughts to help get you there.
Now imagine another scenario where your level of well-being is at 3, and you believe it’s your duty to get it to a 10! You then attempt to convince yourself that you either are at 10, or attempt to force your way to achieving 10. Wouldn’t you end up finding yourself at a 1 before that exercise is over?
We will feel better by thinking positively if we take baby steps, and acknowledge progress along the way. When we put too large of a gap between how we really feel and how we would really like to feel, we will likely feel–even worse.
Makes you less likely to help others.
If we believe that people came into misfortune strictly due to their negative thinking, we will be less likely to help them out. We can justify our dismissal of them by claiming it’s all their fault. They should’ve thought more positively.
Makes you care less about your health.
Positive thinking does provide many benefits to our bodies and immune systems, and reduces our risk for some diseases. Some take this to the extreme and believe as long as they think positively they won’t get sick. This leads some people to believe they don’t need to pay attention to their diets or exercise as their positive thinking will prevent them from succumbing to any illness.
The Power of Less-Positive Thinking
What seems to make the difference as to whether positive thinking will work is the distance between the positive affirmations and our current reality. For positive thinking to be our ally we might need to make our affirmations slightly less positive.
When our intentional thoughts are a bit more positive than our present state of mind, they help to lift us up. If we create too large of a gap between our current reality and our desires we might find ourselves feeling worse than we did before we started.
Positive thoughts and affirmations that are tied to goals should be based on challenging, yet realistic outcomes that are part of a tangible plan for success.
Notice the gap between your purposed positive thoughts and your current emotional state, and be sure it is realistic and achievable. Then state your affirmation.
If you don’t practice positive thinking already, consider trying it today the Little Change way!
We will leave you with an example to get you started:
Scenario: You just woke up after 3 hours of sleep and you face a busy day at work.
A typical positive thought might be: “I feel well-rested, awake and alert!”
Positive Thinking the Little Change way would look more like this: “I can function, and get my work done even though I’m low on sleep.”
Notice the Little Change thought still has a positive outcome, yet it is tied to a realistic goal without denying what is really going on inside. Most people don’t feel well-rested, awake and alert after 3 hours of sleep, but can still function for the short term if they need to.
Try a few of your own!
Since positive thinking has many benefits we hope the current trend of disinterest that we discussed at the beginning of the article will reverse course.
If our pragmatic approach to positive thinking is working for you, please share this article and spread your positivity across social media.