Is Positive Thinking Always A Good Thing?January 26, 2017
So much good stuff has been written about positive thinking, it’s hard to go, “Really?” without sounding like a Debbie Downer.
While positive thinking have been proven to work wonders on the mind and body (more on that below), it is not without its cons. Believing that positive thinking will get you what you want can lead you on a downward spiral to disappointment if things end up not changing for the better.
We interview Dr. Tan Jing Ee, R. Psych, ABPP-CN, a neuropsychologist based in Vancouver, BC, and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, on the pros and cons of positive thinking.
1. What is “positive thinking”?
Positive thinking includes being positive, and having positive attitude, belief, or behaviour that are conducive to growth and success. In psychology, the concept of positive thinking comprises optimism, hope, and gratitude. We can practise positive thinking by keeping a gratitude list or practising mindfulness.
2. Let’s talk about the pros first. By adopting a more positive mindset towards life in general, what effects does that have on our mental and physical health?
Positive thinking has been found to boost the immune system, prevent chronic diseases, protect against harmful behaviours such as alcoholism, and even increase longevity! People who think positively are happier; they manage transitions better, and are generally better at coping with bad news than those who are pessimistic. Generally, positive thinking is associated with psychological well-being. For example, a study on Singaporean undergraduates found that greater positive thinking was related to life satisfaction and happiness while less positive thinking was related to stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. Interestingly, having even some positive thinking is better for psychological well-being than having negative thinking.
Among patients with depression or anxiety, keeping a gratitude list helps improve emotional well-being. Positive thinking has also been found to effectively counter “worry thoughts”, which are a hallmark of anxiety disorder.
3. Books like “The Secret” talk about how some people are able to “think themselves healthy”. Is that possible?
The idea of “think themselves healthy” is really about stress management. Stress, as we know, increases harmful hormones that exert their effect via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This system regulates many body processes such as the immune system, our mood, and our digestion.
Optimists view problems as temporary and manageable. Positive thinkers behave in ways that help them selectively focus on the manageable aspects of a problem to reach a positive goal. For example, in a study of women who had just undergone surgery for breast cancer, those who were encouraged to find meaning in the adversity had lower levels of cortisol, an immune supressing hormone, than those who were not. Similarly, people who cope with stress using humour showed high level of salivary immunoglobulin – an immune system protein against respiratory illness.
However, the benefits of positive thinking depends on personality traits. Some studies have indicated that those who are biologically predisposed to negative emotions cannot be changed by modifying how they think.
4. At what point does “positive thinking” become detrimental to our general wellbeing (mind, body, mood)?
Emphasising positive thinking may reduce open communication because people may feel guilty for communicating negative thoughts. When positive thinking becomes unrealistic, problems are ignored. One study showed that an overly optimistic manager may not be prepared to deal with situations because they do not anticipate problems and in fact, discourage their subordinates from raising issues. Some other studies also suggested that indulging in positive future fantasies may benefit our well-being momentarily but could be a risk factor for depression in the long run.
5. Is it possible to have TOO MUCH “positive thinking”? As a neuropsychologist, if a patient comes to you with an over-the-top positive attitude, what are some of the warning signs you would look out for and what do they point to?
Quite possibly. Some studies have found that indulging in positive future fantasies may lead to low effort and performance over time because it impedes the hard work needed for success. We do need an optimal level of stress to motivate ourselves. Too much positive thinking can result in avoidance of problems.
As a neuropsychologist, I work with individuals with different neurological conditions and their families. When I see someone who is overly positive about their cognitive functioning even though their family is raising major concerns, I would be thinking about the possibility of anosognosia, a deficit in self-awareness or denial of problems. Anosognosia creates problems for caregivers because patients are unwilling to comply with treatment as they do not think they have a problem. This can be very stressful for caregivers.
6. Is there even a link between our mind and health? Is it possible for someone with an overwhelmingly negative outlook to life to be “more prone to falling ill” than a person with a more positive attitude?
Absolutely! Negative thinking is associated with psychopathology like stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. People who are pessimists are also more likely to feel dissatisfied in life. Studies have shown that those who are depressed tend to have lower immunity than those who are not depressed. Depressed people have a selective bias for automatic negative thoughts that in turn affect their behaviour and emotions. By teaching them positive thinking, they can change their ability to cope with stress.
7. Negativity and pessimism – do they have ANY benefits at all on our mind and body?
Some psychologists believe that people who are overly optimistic are not capable of psychological growth as they are unable to self-reflect. Others believe that pessimistic people have a less distorted view of reality. Even the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, recognises the contribution of negativity to psychological growth. It really depends on what you do with the negativity. Pessimists tend to expect bad outcome but if they anticipate problems and prepare to deal with it, they may be more successful than the optimists who are not expecting problems.