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See Inside May / June 2011

Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?

Research suggests limits to looking on the sunny side of life

"ACCENTUATE the positive,” the 1944 song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen cheerfully implored us. From Benjamin Franklin’s 1750 Poor Richard’s Almanack (which advised readers that “sorrow is good for nothing but sin”) to today’s parade of motivational speakers, Americans have long embraced an optimistic, “can-do” attitude toward life. Plug “positive thinking” into Amazon.com, and you will find a never-ending supply of products designed to help us see life through rose-colored lenses, including a “Power of Positive Thinking” wall calendar and an “Overcoming Adversity with Encouragement and Affirmation” poster series.

In fact, however, positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.

Pluses of Pessimism
Despite the popular emphasis on positive thinking, academic psychology was for many decades centered on the negative. Even today a perusal of the typical psychology textbook reveals a predominance of topics dealing with the dark side of life—mental illness, crime, addiction, prejudice and the like—probably reflecting an aim to remediate these personal and social problems.

Then, in the late 1990s, a cadre of prominent psychologists led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman established a field called positive psychology. This burgeoning discipline explores the causes and consequences of happiness, character strengths and virtues, resilience, and other important aspects of psychological adaptation and health. Not all positive psychologists push cheerfulness at any cost—in a 1990 book Seligman warned that optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity.” But many do advocate a perspective that implies that positive thinking is good for all of us, all of the time, noted Bowdoin College psychologist Barbara Held in a 2004 article.

In fact, much of the data supporting solid benefits from positive thinking is weak. According to a 2010 review by Cornell University psychologist Anthony Ong, although most studies show that optimistic people tend to be physically healthier than others and they may also live longer, these findings come from correlational studies, which examine statistical associations between positive thinking and life outcomes but cannot tell us about cause and effect. Thus, thinking positively might make us healthier, but being healthier may instead lead us to think positively. Another interpretation of the same results: positive thoughts and good health are the result of a third factor—being highly energetic, say—that was not measured in most of these studies. The same ambiguity plagues most studies purporting to show that optimism can lift depressed moods or boost job performance.

Even if more optimistic results about optimism eventually surface, a rosy outlook is unlikely to benefit everyone. Defensive pessimists, for example, tend to fret a great deal about upcoming stressors such as job interviews or major exams, and they overestimate their likelihood of failure. Yet this worrying works for these individuals, because it allows them to be better prepared. Work by Wellesley College psychologist Julie Norem and her colleagues shows that depriving defensive pessimists of their preferred coping style—for example, by forcing them to “cheer up”—leads them to perform worse on tasks. Moreover, in a 2001 study of elderly community participants, Seligman and Brandeis University psychologist Derek Isaacowitz found that pessimists were less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative life events, such as the death of a friend. The pessimists had likely spent more time bracing themselves mentally for unpleasant possibilities.

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