Positive Thinking


It seems that our new PM (the Piffle Minister) believes that a can-do attitude and positivity will gain us the prize of a deal with the EU without the need for an Irish backstop.  I’m sure that he’s right, as he is with so many other things, such as figures on the sides of buses and the source of the regulations governing the sending of kippers through the post.

But what I wanted to think about was the power of positive thinking.  Every so often there has been a self-help book which has caught the public imagination and sold in vast quantities. There was Napoleon Hill’s "Think and Grow Rich in 1936. Then it was Norman Vincent Peale’s "The Power of Positive Thinking" about 20 years later. Then Tony Robbins’ "Unleash the Giant Within" which came along in the ’80s. As I understand it, these books and the multitudes of others with similar titles all say more or less the same thing: be aware of your own thoughts, stay positive and focused on your goals, ignore self-doubt and criticism, visualize and concentrate on what you want and you will eventually have it.  It's certainly the case that positive thinking has netted these authors large amounts of cash - but what about their readers?

In business circles, positive thinking is established as something to be desired in an employee. But it is something which has even crept into evangelical churches. Particularly in the USA and South America, the cult of the Church which gives you an earthly fortune has grown and grown. The members are encouraged to give generously to the ‘Lord’s work’, for ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’ as Jesus once said in an entirely different context.  And so for those with faith – positive thinking - they will receive not just riches in heaven.  And the Church leaders will certainly reap a dividend from ever increasing real estate investments and salaries and other benefits befitting leaders with such responsibilities.

But.  A 2013 study released in Psychology and Aging, a journal published by the American Psychological Association (APA), concluded that "Older people who have low expectations for a satisfying future may be more likely to live longer, healthier lives than those who see brighter days ahead." The lead author of the study Frieder R. Lang, PhD, added: "Our findings revealed that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and death within the following decade." "Pessimism about the future," it seems, "may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions" that sunny optimists might not otherwise take.

Scientists don't necessarily find virtue in pure, unadulterated pessimism. Rather, they find benefits in what they call "defensive pessimism."  This is a strategy where people "lower their expectations and think through all the possible negatives that could happen in order to avoid them. The author of the study explains that "Those who are defensively pessimistic about their future may be more likely to invest in preparatory or precautionary measures, whereas we expect that optimists will not be thinking about those things." Similar virtues might eventually be attributed to "defensive optimism," if there is such a thing, but we'll have to wait and see what future studies have to say about that.

But the problems with positivity are even more specific. A look at the research reveals positive thinking isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Relatively recently, people have started thinking of happiness as something everybody’s entitled to all of the time with positivity being its main source. But we might be shooting ourselves in the foot. Constant positive thinking, some researchers say, means a person can never relax - because that’s the moment a “negative” thought might insinuate itself. And insisting that “everything works out” offers positive thinkers no back-up plan for when things don’t.  These criticisms are backed by a lot of research. One study found that when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions more frequently.

Another study found that people with low self-esteem who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”) ended up feeling worse than people who didn’t repeat the phrase. Some researchers have linked the pressure to “think positive” to personal self-blame (“If I can’t be happy, it must be my fault for not being positive enough”). Denial is another potential side effect of positive thinking, and some experts blame overuse of credit cards partly on people’s refusal to consider potential negative outcomes.

Of course, too much positive thinking can actually be a sign of a mood disorder. People with Boris disorder, sorry, bipolar disorder experience states of excessive positive thinking called “mania” that can interfere with their experience of reality and cause them to engage in potentially self-destructive behaviour (making absurd promises, driving at 120 mph, doing lots of drugs, stealing - because “everything’s great and nothing can hurt me”).  As the researchers say, although a typical person doesn’t experience positivity at such a manic level, it is possible for the average person to get swept up by positive feelings, lose their judgement, and do something they wouldn’t normally do.

Positive thinking can also become a way of avoiding necessary action – we can convince ourselves we’re doing something about a given situation (a rubbish job, a looming deadline, an problem with a partner) without actually doing anything. Such people can use positive thinking as a defence, trying not to feel anxious when they quite possibly should. The point is that some amount of anxiety is often necessary for motivating us to act in certain situations. Covering up this anxiety with a smile can actually make our situation worse because we’re less likely to address the underlying issue.

So some level of negativity might actually be good for us. One study found that people in negative moods can produce better-quality and more persuasive arguments than people in a positive mood. Negative moods can also improve memory and mental accuracy, and other research suggests that negative thinking might prompt us to think more carefully. In light of these findings, many researchers are criticizing what they see as exaggerated claims from the pro-positivity camp. they promote instead, I suppose, the power of negative thinking. By preparing for the worst, there’s a chance we actually decrease our suffering down the road. In contrast, trying to “correct” negative thoughts can actually intensify them.

Positive thinking has its proven benefits, both physically and psychologically. The trick is finding the balance between being optimistic and being realistic.  In other words: Stop and smell the roses, but don’t pluck one without first checking for thorns.  And Mr Wiffle Waffle?  Whoever said that realism was a necessary part of a politician’s armoury if you can obtain power through piffle?

Paul Buckingham

26 July 2019

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