It is regarded by some almost as a truism, that we should avoid the negative and embrace the positive. However, the process of self-development is not that simple, and positive thinking is helpful to some, but not others, and depends on the context. Sometimes positive thinking makes us worse.
Affirmations Can Make You Feel Worse
Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo found that positive affirmations make some people feel worse. In 2009 she surveyed how often the students said positive things about themselves and discovered that more than half of them used them quite frequently, especially before stressful and challenging events. Most thought they were helpful. But to test this, she carried out a second study.
She examined whether affirmations made the students feel better. She asked 68 students repeat to themselves every 15 seconds, "I am a lovable person." She found that those with high self esteem felt better, those with low self esteem felt worse. She suggested that those with low self esteem felt worse because they did not believe the statements and also they could not resist negative ideas. Therefore they felt bad because they had not responded to the affirmations, as they thought they should, and they had negative thoughts.
In a third study, Joanne Wood compared those with high self esteem with those with low self esteem when they were asked to consider the truth of the statement "I am a lovable person." She found this made those with low self esteem feel less miserable, but it did not make them feel better. Those with high self esteem felt better in both cases, but not by very much. Wood concluded that self affirmations helped those who did not need them a little, but made those who did need them feel worse.
However, Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado gave students a 15 minute writing task wherein they affirmed their values. The effect of this on black students (but not others) was that there school success was much greater than that of their peers. This persisted over the years after the assignment. For some people, affirming their values and articulating the reasons why they are important can make them more successful. This was true for only some of the students, though. Once again, we learn that procedures might help some, but not others.
In 2007, Carol Dweck wrote that she and her colleagues had consistently found that "Praising students' intelligence gives them a short burst of pride, followed by a long string of negative consequences." These negatives include fear failure, avoid risks, doubt themselves when they fail, and cope poorly with setbacks. That is, young students do better if they are praised for their work effort and application rather than for qualities. If we believe we are intelligent, then we are less likely to face challenges to our intelligence, and when we screw up we think not "I need to work on this" but "I am stupid." By extension, affirming qualities such as intelligence, beauty and health may have undesirable side effects. If we think we are beautiful, then we might be more upset when someone ignores us, than if we held beliefs about things we can more easily change. For instance, being a good listener, and showing persistence.
But if positive thinking can sometimes make us feel worse, can it be harmful?
Positive Thoughts May Be Holding You Back
Sometimes positive visualizations can make us more likely to fail. Lien Pham at the University of California asked one group of students to visualise getting an 'A' in an important midterm exam. Compared with those who weren't asked to do anything special, the visualizers did worse. Surprisingly, spending only a few minutes a day visualising success decreases the motive to work for an important exam, and produces lower grades. This question was taken up by Gabriele Oettingen. Writing in Peter Gollwitzer's Psychology of Action, she asks whether positive fantasy increases success. She concludes that it sometimes makes things worse.
Consider this example. Twenty-five obese women weighting an average of 233 pounds have enrolled in a weight reduction program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. They are asked to imaging that after completing the program they are invited to a pool party. They report their fantasies and rate them as positive or negative. They also rate their figure. Suppose one says, "I'd eat all I could — and eat everyone else's left-overs... I'd probably still be over-weight." And contrast this with one who reports, "I'd be very good and be careful about what I'd eat... I'd show off my slim body." Which would be more likely to lose weight? In the real study, those women with negative fantasies lost 11 kilograms more than those with positive fantasies. This is probably surprising to most of us. Oettingen notes, "Apparently images of getting slim and resisting food temptations hindered weight loss." But how do positive fantasies affect other aspects of health? Does positive visualization alone help us heal faster?
In 1995, Oettingen studied the effects of fantasies in children with cancer. From this study, she concluded "Positive fantasies predicted a less favourable recovery rate ... Effective recovery from cancer demanded taking action (complying with medical demands and coping with painful procedures). Positive fantasies suppressed these because future recovery was perceived to occur effortlessly." In another study, in 2002, Oettingen related positive fantasies and recovery after hip replacement surgery. She found, as before, that positive fantasy was a hindrance to recovery.
What happens when we add some negatives to the mix? Robert Schwarz and Gregory Garamoni in their States of Mind model, proposed a positive-negative mix in thought for normal people in the ratio of the golden section. That is, 2/3 positive and 1/3 negative. Oettingen also studied this.
She studied positive and negative thinking in relationships, in professional success and in health. Overall, it seems that positive fantasy alone hinders progress. Negative thinking seems to be more effective, but when she had people combine thinking about the benefits as well as the problems, they did better than those who thought of the disadvantages. Both groups did better than those who thought of the positive alone. Thinking of both the positive and the negative also benefitted those undergoing hip surgery. They recovered faster than those with positive fantasies alone.
The effects of positive thinking can be even more serious. In 1987, Morgens Jensen studied 52 women with breast cancer and reported that neoplastic spread was associated with, among other things, reduced expression of negative affect, and comforting daydreaming. This too indicates the hindrance of repressing the negative and of positive fantasy.
An important issue that arises is how we deal with negative thoughts. Attempting to suppress them seems to make them more likely to occur. This is dealt with next.
Believing You Must Not Think Negatively Can Rebound
Part of the Positive Thinking movement advocates that negative thoughts shouldn't be tolerated. The irony is that suppressing these thoughts seems to cause them to repeat. One of the sure ways to get someone to think of something is to tell them not to. This fascinated some Russian writers...
The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions wrote:
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner researched this topic and wrote a book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession and the Psychology of Mental Control. In one experiment, he asked subjects to think about whatever they wished, except white bears! If they did, they were to ring a bell. Wegner was deafened by the constant ringing! The subjects did not think of the bear all the time, but it kept popping into their minds.
Telling people to suppress a thought, as Tolstoy did with his little brother, puts them in a trap where the thought continues to appear. The more they try to suppress it, the more it recurs. By telling someone not to think of a negative thought, we can guarantee that they will do so.
When we become obsessed with certain thoughts, what we shouldn't do is to suppress them (otherwise, they will recur): we should allow them to appear and learn to confront them. Allowing ourselves the luxury of negative thoughts is the better way to handle them. The American author John Steinbeck in The Winter of Our Discontent puts it this way, which sums it up nicely:
For instance, when encountering an angry boss, we know that fighting or running away are not options. We handle the situation in our minds. We think of something else, worry, devalue the situation or attend to something else, such as someone else making faces behind the boss's back. We have a fearful stimulus, but we avoid it in some way, so we never truly experience it and allow it to fade. We remain afraid of the boss.
We can also use similar techniques consciously. In our minds, we can swop an unpleasant image for a funny cartoon, or give a nagging voice a comical voice. Sometimes, when we ask someone who is anxious, "What would you be thinking if you weren't thinking about that?", they retrieve pleasant thoughts and their mood changes.
What is happening is that we distract ourselves from the worrying image and its associated thoughts and think of something else. In this way, the root problem remains unhandled. There is nothing wrong with these techniques (called defusion techniques). In fact, they may be extremely helpful.
However, partly because the above techniques do not work for everyone (although they do for most people), some systems try to address the root issues. In these systems we are taught that a thought is just a thought, a body sensation is just a body sensation, and an image is just an image. That is, we are taught to free them from their associated beliefs and values. Inspired by Kipling's If, we might say that when we can treat these imposters (images pretending to be reality, words pretending to be things) for what they are then we can make spiritual and personal progress. New and rediscovered old techniques can do this.
What is sometimes called the Second Wave in cognitive therapy involves techniques that try to deal with root causes using approaches such as mindfulness. In contrast with positive thinking, they embrace the negative rather than trying to suppress it. Reference is always made to the current reality, retaining an objective neutrality toward its state of being, and differentiating actual reality from both negative and positive interpretations. These new approaches, added to our current knowledge of self development, will accelerate progress and understanding in our personal and spiritual development, now and in the future.
This objective, reality-based and mindful approach to self development is central to the approach I take on my own website, Freeing the Mind, hosted by Trans4mind. It is also integral to the philosophy of the courses offered by Trans4mind, which Peter Shepherd has developed. If you do these courses you should expect to see stable improvements in your life skills and abilities at work. You will have better judgment, increased mental speed and will power, better self-expression, the ability to study effectively and recall what you have learned, more creative insights, and confidence in your capacity to achieve your personal goals in life.