Positive thinking vs optimism
‘Look on the bright side’ is positive thinking advice that can only be applied at the time it’s least desired – yet years of research in the area of positive psychology has posited that thinking positively is indeed the way to better mental wellness. Think better, live better; it seems intuitive. After all, what’s the use of focusing on the negatives when you can learn to self-manage dismal thoughts?
As time moved on and research in the area grew, cracks have begun to appear in the idea that positive thinking – at least at its most basic – might be worse than unhelpful; it could actually be detrimental to some.
The negative side of positive thinking
Positive thinking is ill-defined, ranging from acts of making small, conscious positive thoughts (I’m doing great today) to wide-spanning hypotheses and theories on what makes for a positive mind and lifestyle. The broadness of the topic has led to shelves filled with self-help books and guides on how to reach positivity, as well as an endless stream of gurus and life-coaches.
However, studies have emerged that there are aspects of the positive thinking movement that might be detrimental to some, and that negative thinking plays a role in good mental health.
As implied by the name, positive self-statements are reaffirming assurances designed to reflect positively on the individual. Eg ‘I am loveable’, ‘I am a good person’, ‘I deserve happiness’. In the long-term, these statements are hoped to improve overall self-image and confidence.
However, studies have found that, while this practice is effective in people already high self-esteem, in those with low self-esteem, it was actually detrimental.
In the research article Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, researchers looked at three studies on the impact of positive self-statements.
Study 1: Participants were asked to complete a self-esteem scale, and to complete an online questionnaire about their usage of positive self-statements and how it made them feel and how effective they perceived them to be. While they were in common use by the participants, and believed to be effective, low self-esteem participants reported that positive self-statements “sometimes made them feel worse, rather than better”.
Study 2: Participants were asked to repeat the phrase ‘I am a loveable person’ at regular intervals during a four-minute period, complete two mood tests, and to measure how they felt about their self-esteem ‘right now’.
Again, those with high self-esteem showed ‘improved’ results, seeing the world more favourably and feeling incentivised to engage in activities. Those with low self-esteem showed ‘diminished’ results, but at a higher level of disparity. In short, the positive boost was smaller than the negative decline.
Study 3: Participants were this time asked to focus on the why and how they were ‘a loveable person’, and self-report on their mood. Like with the previous two experiments, those with lower self-esteem reported diminished happiness and mood states.
Why this is the case might rest on two other factors – how we perceive our level of controls over our own thoughts, and when thinking negatively can be a benefit.
Controlling your thoughts
Being able to control your own thoughts is a powerful idea. Assuming control of your mental state and emotions would, hypothetically, allow an individual to live their life exactly as they saw fit. On the flipside, if it is possible to control your thoughts and live as you want to, then the failure to do so rests solely on the individual.
This might explain why those with low self-esteem react negatively to positive self-statements: they cannot make themselves believe what they are telling themselves, which is a failure, in turn affecting their mood and self-image.
A study entitled Beliefs about emotion’s malleability influence state emotion regulation explores this concept in more detail:
The study – participants in the study were primed with false information and statistics about emotion, half receiving a passage promoting emotion as being malleable and half promoting emotion as being fixed.
The results – participants who were given the ‘malleable’ passage were more likely to engage in self-blaming, and those given the ‘fixed’ passage were more likely to engage in acceptance.
While the ability to self-regulate emotions may never be fully realised, the correlation between our perception of what we can control against what we can’t can help us determine individual strategies. Believe it or not, some of those strategies should involve negative thinking.
The benefits of negativity
Negative thoughts are unavoidable, and there’s some research which supports the idea that negativity, or specifically, negative emotions, allow us to be more adaptive. The study When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment looks at three aspects of life – adult intimate partnerships, patients with chronic illness, and first year college students – to see how negative emotions effected adaptivity. In each case, it was shown that negative emotions led to better outcomes:
“Data analysis revealed that contextually sensitive negative emotion was adaptive, and associated with better relationship adjustment and related behaviours (Study 1), higher treatment adherence (Study 2), and adaptive responses to peer rejection (Study 3). Across samples, circumstances, and outcomes, negative emotions were positively associated with psychological health and adjustment.”
A commentary on Can Sadness Be Good For you? Provides an extensive list of the benefits associated with a mildly negative mood, including:
Misinformation effect reduced for those in a negative mood (vs positive, Forgas, Vargas, & Laham, 2005)
Real-world object memory increased for those in a sad mood (vs happy, Forgas, Goldenberg, & Unkelbach, 2009)
Fundamental attribution error reduced for those in a sad mood (vs happy, Forgas, 1998a)
Halo effects reduced for those in a negative mood (and increased for happy mood, Forgas, 2011b)
Primacy effects eliminated for those in a negative mood (and accentuated in a positive mood, Forgas, 2011a)
Reliance on visual fluency for truth judgements reduced for those in a negative mood (vs happy, Koch & Forgas, 2012)
Reliance on pre-existing stereotypes reduced for sad people (vs increase for happy people, Unkelbach, Forgas, & Denson, 2008)
Deception detection increased for people in a sad mood (vs happy, Forgas & East, 2008b)
Detection of genuine expressions increased for those in a negative mood (as compared to neutral or happy mood, Forgas & East, 2008a)
Hedonistic discounting reduced for sad mood (vs happy, Goldenberg & Forgas, 2012)
Self-handicapping decreases for sad mood (vs happy, Alter & Forgas, 2007)
Strategic interpersonal behaviours
What can we make of positive thinking?
Like all things related to mental health, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. As discussed, positive thinking, or actively trying to lean towards positive emotions, can be beneficial to some people, while others (those more in need of positivity or reassurance) are less likely to benefit from it. We always advise to consult with professionals about mental health management that can work for you as an individual.
The benefits of optimism
How does optimism and positive thinking differ? Isn’t optimism a kind of positive thinking? The way we separate the two is by definition – positive thinking is a broad range of hypotheses, theories, and practices, while optimism can be defined succinctly as:
‘hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.’
Even if someone thinks negatively, it’s possible for them to still be optimistic. As an example, someone from our earlier tests may believe that they aren’t a loveable person, but have hope or confidence that circumstances can change for the better.
Academic benefits of optimism
Optimism seems to play a role in academic achievement and retention. A recent study of 7th grade German students entitled ‘Think Positive? Examining the Impact of Optimism on Academic Achievement in Early Adolescents’ found that ‘optimism promoted academic achievement’, but tended to plateau on either side of the high/low spectrum. Further, studies ‘Optimism and College Retention: Mediation by Motivation, Performance, and Adjustment’ and ‘Optimism and Attributional Retraining: Longitudinal Effects on Academic Achievement, Test Anxiety, and Voluntary Course Withdrawal in College Students’ had results showing:
- Optimism correlated with lower rates of drop-outs
- Higher levels of motivation
- Better adjustment capabilities
- Higher Grade Points Averages (GPA)
The latter study gives further insight into how optimism plays a role in academic achievement. Some students participating in the study underwent ‘Attributional Retraining’ – a method for students to think differently. For example, if a student failed a test and considered it because they didn’t have the talent to pass, attributional retraining offers other causes: perhaps the test was harder than expects, or there was a better way to prepare for it. This gives students reasons to continue with their studies and find tools to succeed in the future.
Why optimism is better for health
When we’re referring to optimism regarding health, especially mental health, we’re looking at how worldview manifests in positive behaviours.
In a section on ‘Optimism’, The Happy Mind: Cognitive Contributions to Well-Being refers to actions taken by optimistic people, in that they’re more likely to pre-emptively address threats, more likely to engage with and accomplish goals, and have better physical health. As an example:
Optimist sees their weight as an issue > is more likely to face threats caused by this > more likely to commit to diet and exercise > leading to better physical and mental health.
A pessimist might have a completely opposite experience or faltering experience, perhaps recognising the threat but not acting on it or committing to it.
Another of the associated characteristics of optimists is their ability to deal with stressful situations – the paper ‘Optimism, Coping, and Well-Being’ found optimists are:
- are less distressed when encountering adversity
- more likely to remain engaged in their goals when under threat
- have more quality intimate relationships
- women’s optimism determined relationship survival
- higher in emotional wellbeing
- better coping mechanisms
- lower rates of depression
Yet another study found a link between overall positive health discrepancies in stroke survivors was due to levels of optimism.
What can we make of optimism?
There seems to be evidence that optimism may be genetic (UCLA Newsroom, The British Psychological Society: Research Digest, National Institutes of Health), however, genes do not have complete control over our destinies. Some studies and articles suggest that you can cultivate an optimistic mindset, in ways similar to ‘Attributional Retraining’.
Again, we stress that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, and always consult with the right professionals to see what works for you.
If you need support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp or call the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 224 636 or visit www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
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