Positive thinking is a concept that promotes a consistently positive attitude in order to be happy and successful even in difficult times. Most of the time, this way of thinking can become a strength in the face of life’s challenges. But in some cases, it can become toxic.
In search of positivity
Before we can turn to the philosophy of positive thinking, we need to understand what is going on in the brain, because this need for positivity at all costs is not out of nowhere. Many studies show that older people prefer positive emotions and avoid or reduce negative emotions, both subjectively and physiologically. Scientists call this the “positivity effect”. Although many cultural biases contribute to this perception, people can become more positive as they get older.
But before that, other studies have shown that negative emotions have a greater impact on younger people than positive emotions. This ‘negativity bias’ is thought to give more weight to negative information. For example, you may be more influenced by criticism than by a compliment. Moreover, in the most tragic cases, such as divorce, death, or trauma, it can cause intense distress, which we try to relieve at any cost. In such moments of vulnerability, positive thinking can be a tempting solution that promises happiness and healing. But it is not!
The positive thinking movement
Created in 1952 by the American pastor Norman Vincent Peale, positive thinking is primarily a religiously inspired pseudoscience that 60 years later has gained new interest in the field of personal development. It has become a very profitable business that is now spreading all over the world. Its basic principle is to be optimistic in all circumstances, focusing on the happy moments rather than the negative ones. To achieve this, the philosophy advises its followers to practice gratitude and visualize their future success.
NB: Positive thinking should not be confused with positive psychology, a field of research that studies what makes people happy, optimistic, or resilient.
It can be linked to the controversial autosuggestion strategy, an ancient concept developed by the French psychologist and pharmacist Emile Coeur. The aim of this method is to repeat positive thoughts several times a day in order to improve one’s mental health. The positive thinking movement also gave rise to the famous “law of attraction”, which states that you can attract positive things just by thinking about them. A kind of magical thinking, even without a scientific basis.
Positive thinking explained
Unfortunately, if you try to ignore, avoid or suppress your emotions that are considered negative, or feel guilty when you finally feel them, this commandment can become toxic. A frightening phenomenon can occur: the more you try to avoid a thought, the more you think about it. Note that at a certain threshold, negative thoughts should not be ignored. They can be a sign that something is wrong. They need to be listened to, accepted, and expressed.
But even before it becomes toxic for people in psychological distress, positive thinking is also ineffective in improving performance. Research by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking, shows that when we visualize success, the brain believes we have already achieved our goals – even if only virtually. This is called ‘mental achievement’. As a result, we feel less need to act in the real world and are less successful.
The opposite effect
To solve this problem, Gabriele Oettingen proposes an alternative approach. She thinks it would be more interesting to visualize the challenges that hinder us than to visualize our successes. Her experiments show that people who take into account future obstacles formulate realistic goals and therefore invest more effort and achieve better results, while people with unrealistic goals, i.e. who do not take obstacles into account, achieve worse results. Our minds have an unconscious way of guiding us towards achievable aspirations.
Other psychologists, such as Peter Max Gollwitzer and his colleagues at New York University, have gone a step further with the implementation intentions strategy. This is a short and simple four-step exercise called WOOP – (wish, outcome, obstacle, plan). It proposes to define the desire, visualize the desired outcome, identify the obstacles and finally move on to the implementation plan. The aim of this method is therefore to confront dreams with reality.
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