Does positive thinking really lead to greater happiness? Are we fooling ourselves?
Most people say that reading about the importance of positive thinking has not really helped. Yet we keep hearing about the power of positive thinking. Why?
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that negative beliefs about the self, the world, and the future can lead to anger, anxiety, and depression. And to feel better, it seems reasonable to turn to “optimistic” or “positive” thinking.
But this strategy can backfire if our new ideas aren’t believable, realistic, or confirmed by our experiences.
When positive thinking goes wrong
Have you ever tried to convince yourself that you would ‘kill’ the job interview and get hired immediately?
That you would stand up in front of an audience and deliver a perfect presentation?
That you would start up a conversation with a potential business person who would see your greatness and be thrilled to chat with you?
That you would be able to stick to your diet because this time you’re truly motivated?
Sometimes beliefs like these are supported by tr4ecuhe data—pleasant reactions from other people, consistently healthy behavior, and other successful outcomes.
But sometimes we experience disappointing outcomes that don’t match our predictions. If we try to guide ourselves through life with positive thoughts, what happens when things don’t work out so well?
When beliefs and experiences don’t match, we become confused, frustrated, and disappointed. This is why positive thinking is so limited. It often seems forced or inauthentic and it only works when we have the experiences we desire.
When we see the future through rose-tinted lenses, we are less likely to take the action necessary to achieve our goals, according to New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen. In studies performed in the U.S. and Germany, Oettingen found that when people felt more self-assured about their future, whether “college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, [or] schoolchildren wishing to get good grades,” fantasizing about future successes reduced the likelihood of attaining them.
“Why doesn’t positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.”
Oettingen recommends “mental contrasting,” which involves mixing visions of your successful future with a clear sense of the obstacles that will stand in your way. In experiments, this method helped people distinguish between achievable and unrealistic goals. And by clearly identifying an obstacle to be overcome, mental contrasting has helped keep people motivated.
Journalist Stephen Dubner has also researched how humans solve problems. In his Big Think interview, Dubner argues that thinking small–finding one piece of a problem that you can meaningfully address–is a better approach than trying to overcome massive challenges
What’s the alternative?
So, a better bet is to practice replacing negative beliefs with ideas that are more accurate , realistic, useful, and achievable.
For example, when you catch yourself thinking in unreasonable ways, begin to assess accuracy. Some questions to ask yourself:
- What’s the evidence to support this belief?
- Is there any evidence to reject it?
- Is there a more accurate way to think about this situation?
Next, consider the usefulness of the belief and whether it would benefit you to change it. Some questions to ask yourself:
- What’s the likely effect of thinking this way?
- How does it affect my emotions? My behavior?
- What would happen if I changed my belief?
Using exercises like these to move toward more accurate and useful beliefs can have a huge impact on the intensity of unpleasant emotions.
Remember, it is better to take small steps and check out the results – keep on doing that and you will find things taking a change for the better around you.
Let me know your progress. Have you any experiences to share? Do so and let us assess your success at: firstname.lastname@example.org