Another study calls into question the healing power of positive affirmations—those ubiquitous fixtures of pop psychology parodied by former comedian Al Franken as counselor Stuart Smalley (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me”). In a study published in 2009 University of Waterloo psychologist Joanne Wood and her colleagues found that for participants with high self-esteem, repeating a positive affirmation (“I am a lovable person”) multiple times indeed resulted in slightly better moods right afterward. But among those with low self-esteem, the positive affirmations backfired, resulting in worse moods. Wood and her colleagues conjectured that statements like Smalley’s ring hollow in the minds of individuals with low self-esteem, serving only to remind them of how often they have fallen short of their life goals.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Another potential hitch in the positive-thinking movement is that a sanguine attitude may be unhealthy when taken to an extreme, because it can become unhinged from reality. In a 2000 article University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, a founder of the positive psychology movement, distinguished realistic optimism, which hopes for the best while remaining attuned to potential threats, from unrealistic optimism, which ignores such threats.
A 2007 study by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener and Michigan State University psychologist Richard Lucas reinforces Peterson’s concerns. Using analyses from several large international samples, they found that although extremely happy people are the most successful in close interpersonal relationships and volunteer work, moderately happy people are more successful than extremely happy people financially and educationally and are also more politically active. Admittedly, Oishi and his colleagues measured happiness rather than optimism per se, although the two tend to be fairly closely associated. Still, their findings raise the possibility that although a realistically positive attitude toward the world often helps us to achieve certain life goals, a Pollyannaish attitude may have its costs—perhaps because it fosters complacency.
Positive thinking surely comes with advantages: it may encourage us to take needed risks and expand our horizons. But it has downsides as well and may not be for everyone, especially those for whom worrying and kvetching come naturally as coping mechanisms. Moreover, positive thinking may be counterproductive if it leads us to blithely ignore life’s dangers. Finally, as journalist Barbara Ehrenreich warns in a 2009 book, the pervasive assumption that positive attitudes permit us to “think our way out of” illnesses such as cancer has an unappreciated dark side: it may lead people who fail to recover from these illnesses to blame themselves for not being more chipper.