photo credit: Joshua Earle

Why “Think Positive” is Dangerous Advice

We’re always told by other people to think positive. The key to success is life is to believe, because once you do, you can achieve your goals. Anything is possible when you rely on the power of positive thinking.

At least, that’s what they say.

But experience shows that that’s not necessarily the case.

A few friends I knew wanted to partner up and start an advertising business. People supported their idea and doled out encouraging advice.

In usual fashion, the partners reveled in the high of embarking on a new venture. They talked excitedly about the possibilities their new business would bring. Together, they spent evenings discussing how to set up the business.

First, they set up a corporation and decided on a tax structure. Then, they looked up a few potential customers and brainstormed what kind of help they could offer. Business was going to be big.

Then something happened. Gradually, their interest waned and they eventually stopped having meetings. To this day, the business has no sales and has lain dormant since.

If there was anything these friends had, it was enthusiasm. They were positive that their business would thrive. But optimism wasn’t enough to help them.

What’s more, positivity could even be a hindrance to success.

The Dangerous Highs of Fantasizing

Fantasizing is fun. When you delegate your ambitions to the mind, you can achieve whatever you want. You imagine finally getting something you’ve wanted for a long time or picturing your life in a scenario vastly different from reality.

But that’s also what makes fantasizing so dangerous. When you daydream, your brain feels like it’s accomplished what you’re imagining. In other words, the fantasy substitutes reality because you get that euphoric feeling in both scenarios.

So what exactly goes on our heads as we sit at our desks and picture ourselves lying on a warm, sunny beach? According to Rethinking Positive Thinking, written by psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen, our blood pressure drops as we think happy thoughts. In turn, our energy levels go down.

When people have less energy, it becomes harder to summon up the motivation to go after what they want. The drop in energy is similar to other relaxing activities, such as meditating or lying on your bed.

It’s obvious why we like to dream about better things. It’s within our control, it’s easy to do, and it’s a shortcut to where we want to be. Too much of it though, and we can end up paying in the long run.

College Students Navigating Work and Romance

Oettingen interviewed college students to see how positive thinking impacted various aspects of their life. In a study, the students were divided into two groups. The first group was told to imagine that the next week would turn out great. The second group simply had to write down any thoughts they had about the upcoming week.

The first group, full of positive thoughts, immediately reported that they felt less energy compared to the second group. In the week after, they also accomplished less than the second group.

One week is a relatively short period of time in our lives. So what happens if we fantasize over a longer period of time, say two years?

Oettingen asked 83 students in their last year of graduate studies to evaluate their likelihood of getting a job, whether they thought positive or negative thoughts, and how often they had these thoughts.

Two years later, Oettingen interviewed the students again and found that participants who experienced positive fantasies did not try as hard as students who had some negative thoughts about life after college. As a result, the students who fantasized received fewer job offers and lower salaries overall.

However, the students who had high expectations of success performed the best, with more job offers and higher salaries.

Of course, it’s possible they were also the highest achievers and best candidates of the group as well.

When it came to college students’ romantic lives, the results were similar. The students who fantasized a lot about the person they were interested in were much less likely to start a relationship. The students that expected success, though, were more likely to start a relationship with the person.

The experiences of these college students show that positivity isn’t necessarily bad. But when it’s used for daydreaming rather than action, it becomes an issue. There’s a difference between expecting to succeed and pretending you’ve already done so.

Biologically Built for Optimism

The thing about humans is that we tend to look on the sunny side.

Across all regions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes, people are geared towards hope more than despair. There might be the occasional pessimist, but roughly 80 percent of people are optimistic, according to Tali Sharot, who heads the Affective Brain Lab in London.

People tend to take negative experiences and see the good in them. For instance, we might face challenges in our lives and say that they make us stronger, or make mistakes and use them as learning opportunities.

Optimism has played an amazing role in human history. The people who have ventured further than everyone else they knew — explorers, risk-takers, innovators — must have believed that there was something better out there. That they would do something dangerous, even life-threatening, to push the boundaries goes to show the amount of faith they placed in their actions.

This positive trait means a better ability to cope with hardships and to persevere through difficulties. Optimists also live longer, healthier lives than pessimists. They’re less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes or smoke cigarettes.

The flip side to optimism is that we can overestimate our abilities. When beginners first learn a skill, they tend to think that their performance is or will be much better than it really is. After reality hits, it can feel disappointing to know that they aren’t as good at something as they thought.

An overabundance of optimism can also make us underestimate risks. You might have experienced that moment when something bad happened to somebody and you thought to yourself, “That’s unfortunate, but it won’t happen to me”. If so, that’s the optimism speaking.

This type of thinking can cause us to ignore the negative consequences of our actions, such as smoking regularly, sitting in a car without a seatbelt, or making a risky career move without a fallback. At times like these, we need to pause and evaluate what we plan to do.

Get Reasonable

We all need some positivity in our lives to keep us going through tough times. Otherwise, how else could we see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The good news is that we’re naturally inclined to be positive. The first part of planning is to think about what you want to do. So go ahead and daydream about the perfect scenario.

The next step is to consider the realities of the situation. Think about where your strengths lie and how far you are from the goal you want to achieve. It’s important to be honest with yourself.

For instance, you dream about being a professional comedian but you hate having to revise your comedy material over and over. Or maybe you want to collaborate with someone on a project but remember how frustrated you felt partnering up on something in the past. When we fantasize, it’s easy to forget the mundane and difficult parts.

As you compare your goal with your personality and where you are now, ask yourself: Do the parts fit together, or does it just not make sense? If it’s the latter, you can place the goal lower on your priorities.

But if the goal is important and feasible, it’s a good idea to consider things that might go wrong and what you can do about them. Setting up a contingency plan makes a goal less intimidating because you’ve already anticipated potential issues and ways to deal with them.

Positive Thinking Alone Isn’t Enough

Positive thinking takes many forms. It ranges from high expectations of ourselves to simply expecting great things to happen on their own. You can probably guess which of these two is better.

There’s no need to get rid of positive thinking, and given human nature, it wouldn’t be easy to get rid of anyway. Instead, positivity should act as a supplement to our planning and efforts.

Positive thinking is just one part of the picture, which includes anticipating problems, planning out our steps, and knowing whether a goal should be pursued. Simply wishing for something to happen feels nice, but isn’t enough on its own.

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