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Skeptic magazine 19.3

The Negative Side of Positive Psychology

This article is from Carol Tavris’ column, “The Gadfly,” that appeared in Skeptic magazine 19.3 (2014).

In his book One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, Mitch Horowitz reports with pride how he responded to a task assigned to him by the teacher of a spiritual group. For a winter camping trip, he had to find heart-shaped pink buckets for the female campers who didn’t want to venture into the icy woods at night to urinate. Round wouldn’t do; red wouldn’t do. He searched for days, annoying his wife, who wondered why he didn’t expend the same energy on household tasks. And then, incredibly, he found exactly the right buckets at a neighborhood grocery store. The moral, he says, is that when you “endeavor past all conventional effort, to the point where giving up seems like the only possible option,” you get “an emotional charge that no actuarial table can fully capture.”

Your response to this story will probably predict your response to the positive-thinking movement in general. Are you thinking to yourself, “Talk about bucket lists! What a charming account of positive thinking and persistence in the face of unlikely success!” Or are you thinking, “Did anyone think about the female campers’ reaction to being given a stupid heart-shaped pink bucket? ‘Thanks, Mitch, but I’ll just use my pee shooter so I don’t have to smell a bucket of urine all night or knock it over when I stumble out in the morning.’ How about those household tasks he wasn’t doing—did his wife tell him to, well, piss off?”

Over the years I have grown quite grumpy about positive thinking. I don’t object to it as a general life strategy, of course; but the oversimplified litany of alleged benefits it produces is scientifically problematic. Over the years of constantly updating an introductory psychology textbook with my coauthor Carole Wade, new research obliges us to keep whittling away our previous discussions of positive psychology’s benefits. In our latest edition, positive psychology is barely a shadow of its former hulking self.

Let’s start with optimism. When something bad happens to you, it certainly seems logical that it is healthier to assume that you will come through it okay than to gloomily mutter, “I knew it. The whole world is against me, including Minneapolis and Tasmania.” In a fundamental way, optimism in the face of occasional setbacks makes life possible. If people are going through a rough patch but believe things will get better eventually, they are more likely to keep striving to make that prediction come true. Even fans of the Chicago Cubs, who have not won the World Series in living (and non-living) memory, maintain a lunatic optimism that “there’s always next year.” This delusion is fine, especially on opening day. Look, Boston did it. Eventually.

A decade ago, studies were indeed reporting that optimism is better for health, well-being, and even longevity than pessimism is. The pop-psych gurus were ecstatic, some claiming that having an optimistic outlook would prolong the life of people suffering from serious illnesses. That hope unfortunately proved false: A team of Australian researchers who followed 179 patients with lung cancer over a period of eight years found that optimism made no difference in who lived or in how long they lived. Before long, for every study showing the benefits of optimism, another was showing either no effect or even that it can be harmful. Among other things, optimists are more likely to keep gambling even when they lose money, and they can be more vulnerable to depression when the rosy, hoped-for outcome does not occur. (Among older people who are widowed, pessimists are less likely to become depressed than optimists.) Optimism also backfires when it keeps people from preparing themselves for complications of surgery (because they wave off practical concerns with “Oh, everything will be fine”) or causes them to underestimate risks.

For optimism to reap its benefits, therefore, we might say a skeptical optimism is required. You can recite “Everything is good! I’m adorable! Everything will work out!” 20 times a day, but it won’t get you much (except worried glances from your neighbors). It must be grounded in reality, spurring people to take better care of themselves, regard problems and bad news as difficulties they can overcome, and get off the couch to solve their problems. Optimism needs a behavioral partner.

That partner was identified in one of the longest longitudinal studies ever conducted in psychology. Starting in 1921, Lewis Terman began following more than 1,500 children over the course of their lives. These children, affectionately called the “Termites,” were tracked long into their adulthood, and when Terman died in 1956 other researchers took up the project. The most recent carriers of the baton were health psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, authors of The Longevity Project, who wondered what factors might be related to longevity in this sample.1 The answer wasn’t optimism or other forms of positive thinking. It was conscientiousness—the ability to persist in pursuit of goals, work hard but enjoy the work and its challenges, and be responsible to others and for one’s obligations. Conscientious people are optimists in the sense that they believe their efforts will pay off, but, more important, they act in ways to make that expectation come true. The findings on the Termites, who were largely a white, middleclass cohort, have been replicated across more than 20 independent samples that differed in terms of ethnicity and social class.

Over and over, other basic notions of the positive-psychology movement have melted in the hot glare of evidence. Take self-esteem (and I wish someone would, already). Consider all those programs designed to bolster children’s and adult’s self-esteem by having them repeat positive self-statements such as “I’m a lovable person!” (Comedian Al Franken satirized these efforts in his SNL character Stuart Smalley, who would stand in front of a mirror repeating “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”) That works fine for people who already have high selfesteem and are pretty sure they’re lovable, at least most of the time. But among people with low self-esteem, repeating positive self-statements and asserting how true they are (“that’s really me!”) makes them feel worse than people who do not repeat the statements or who focus on how the statements are both true and false (“that’s me…sometimes”). Similarly, when children who have low self-esteem are given inflated praise (“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing, Horace!”), that praise may momentarily please them, but it also often discourages them from taking on new challenges that they fear they won’t be able to meet.2 To be effective, praise and selfaffirmation must be grounded in reality: the person has to focus on his or her actual strengths, positive values, and good qualities and then use them to choose and work toward realistic goals.

It will come as no surprise to curmudgeons that even cheerfulness is overrated. In his paper “Don’t Worry, Be Sad!,” psychologist Joseph Forgas reviewed the many experiments, including his own, demonstrating that being in a down, melancholy mood can improve memory, reduce errors in judgment, boost motivation, increase the politeness of one’s requests to others, reduce selfishness in favor of fair play in dealing with others, and—get this!— reduce gullibility and increase skepticism in determining the likely truth of urban myths and rumors.3 Is that a great finding or what? Skeptics, we have a new motto: Surly to bed and surly to rise…

Forgas was talking about negative mood, not emotion; being in a constant turmoil of intense rage, grief, anxiety, or even joy is rarely conducive to critical thinking. Nevertheless, that muchvaunted “positivity ratio” proposed by positive psychologists Barbara Frederickson and Marcial Losada—the idea that you need to maintain a 3:1 ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions for ideal “flourishing”—was brilliantly debunked by Nick Brown, a British graduate student who thought the original data were too good to be true. He was right. In 2013 he and his colleagues published a damning assessment, concluding that there was no theoretical or empirical basis for the positivity ratio, and any claims for it were “entirely unfounded.” 4

There is nothing new about the positive-thinking movement in America, which was born in the 19th century with Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and Phineas Quimby’s New Thought philosophy. They, like the Stoics centuries before them and cognitive- behavioral therapists today, understood that self-defeating ways of thinking can keep people stuck and suffering. Of course, how we think affects how we feel and how we act. But the problem our society faces is not that more people need to think positively. It is that not enough people are thinking skeptically about positive psychology’s simplistic promises. END

  1. Friedman, Howard S., & Martin, Leslie R. 2011. The Longevity Project. New York: Hudson Street Press.
  2. Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B.J. (2014). “‘That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful!’: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children with Low Self-esteem.” Psychological Science, 25, 728–735.
  3. Forgas, Joseph P. 2013. “Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On the Cognitive, Motivational, and Interpersonal Benefits of Negative Mood.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 225–232.
  4. Brown, Nicholas J. L., Sokal, Alan D., & Friedman, Harris L. (2013). The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio. American Psychologist, 68, 801–813.
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March 9, 2016 7:34 pm

Love this. I see the Positive Thinking movement as being applied to politics. As a super-skeptic, I’ve sometimes envied the ability to lie to yourself, as if you were several separate clueless selves, but I’ve know many smart people who are happy tergiversators. Accomplished self-deceivers. I still can’t forget the basic set-up of this world: eat each other. It’s a nasty, ugly concept to start with. Positive thinking useful to Leftist politics, when you think about it. And optimists more likable, fare better socially, win votes. Take Cruz: he’s right! He’s Right! But loses votes on likability! Political correctness gets a boost from Positive Thinking.Not nice to say, or even think, anything negative. Better not to think about it. Could get you in trouble. Don’t be a nay-sayer. Don’t criticize. Maybe that’s why we’re in such a mess.

Nathan Krawitz
March 4, 2016 5:01 am

This review seems to back up some of my thoughts about altruism (giving) versus narcissism (taking). Those who are balanced tend to be selfish enough to persue procreation for themselves and personal gain while taking care of others, setting aside some personal satisfaction for the population’s survival as a whole.

It is easy to see the destruction by those who are excessively selfish. What’s not easy is the destruction of those who are excessively giving. Often, they continue to give to the point that they don’t tend to their own health. More importantly, we initially tend to believe others act and think similar to ourselves. The narcissist tends to believe most think like them, so work to identify opponents to either use or destroy. They also seek out the gullible and willing to advance their personal greed. Altruists assume others are primarily honest and fair, leaving themselves wide open to scams and cons.

Obviously, we need balance to be kind when it is prudent and selfish when necessary. Otherwise, we destroy ourselves and society as a whole.

March 3, 2016 6:42 am

Since this author edits psychology textbooks, I refuse to believe she doesn’t know the difference between positive psychology and positive thinking, which hints at a bias that many in the skeptic community have against anything termed “positive.” Our masochistic species seems to derive some pleasure (or at least pay-off) from the physiological symptoms of negative emotion. Barbara Ehrenreich and the whole lot build these elaborate straw-men over hundreds of pages and beautifully destroy them. Something more insidious and personal is at work here.

Roger Whittaker
March 3, 2016 4:05 am

I have had my doubts about Trying to make myself focus on ‘positive thinking’ to try to redirect my thinking, so as to feel better. I tend to believe positive thoughts will fall into place, if circumstances are good and our needs are being met. Trying not to be negative, can drive people away from speaking-out when disgusted or annoyed. There can certainly be an over-load of pretense that stifles a persons authentic thinking and behaviour. Some peoples lives are full of disappointment, while others lives are quite joyful and pleasant. So if our thoughts produce good outcomes all round, don’t question them.

March 1, 2016 2:19 am

Johan, you are so right!!
“Positive thinking is the father of Positive Psychology”.

March 1, 2016 2:18 am

George serendipitously hit the nail on the head with his topographical error in this sentence:
“Positive Psychology is a discipline that has MAD contributions to our undestanding of happiness, misery, and other aspects of a healthy and balanced life”.

February 22, 2016 10:08 am

The ladies do protest too much methinks. Positive thinking is the father of Positive Psychology – they just added some pseudo-scientific bullshit.

February 22, 2016 6:24 am

As many others have pointed out, Positive Psstchology and The Positive Thinking Movement are two seperate things which the author has at least conflated. Positive Thinking leads to improve your life by buying into “The Secret” and other such crap. Positive Psychology is a discipline that has mad contributions to our undestanding of happiness, misery, and other aspects of a healthy and balanced life. It has made contibutions to clinical and non-clinical methodolgies and assesments. After all, like attracts like. (Sorry for that)

Hank Lam
February 18, 2016 9:28 pm

I would like to hear an elaboration or critique as (how) these concepts add to or debunk (from) this research:
Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend | TED Talk
A long, happy, meaningful & healthy life is my goal!

February 18, 2016 4:31 am

This seems like yet another article that confuses positive psychology with positive thinking – two very different things.

Ann Worth
February 18, 2016 12:50 am

I wonder why this set of claims is any more trustworthy than the original set of claims.

The present evidence downplaying the value of positive thinking doesn’t seem any different (in quantity or kind) from the previous evidence supporting it.

Ann Kah
February 17, 2016 8:59 pm

To extremes, either Pollyanna optimism or Oscar-the-grouch pessimism is annoying in someone else, but at a lower level of either, I think most people would rather spend time with the optimist. I’d expect that to be true but have no statistics on the matter, and wonder if one’s optimism level has a correlation with number of friends. If that is so, the pessimist might find himself more and more isolated, which might increase his pessimism. This is speculation on my part.

Dave J
February 17, 2016 8:41 pm

It’s all about balance folks. To every action is a reaction, whether it be positive or negative. Positive does not exist without negative, negative does not exist without positive.
One is no better than the other. Both are a reality.

Buck Bowen
February 17, 2016 8:17 pm

Seems like the author set up “optimism” to be this fluffy delusional notion of affirmations in the mirror, then proceeded to champion himself in its take down.

The bottom line is “ACTION.” Your thoughts about the future will affect your behavior in the present. Positive thoughts, positive action, positive results.

February 17, 2016 6:58 pm

Blessed is s/he who expects nothing because s/he will never be disappointed.

Richard LaBrie, Psy.D.
February 17, 2016 4:38 pm

Indeed, positive psychology is different from positive thinking. Among other complex approaches within the discipline, positive psychology stresses elevating strengths and assets while attempting to reduce issues and symptoms. It is a balanced approach. Older psychological approaches tended to focus only on reducing symptoms or problems or issues, and tended to overlook what can be enhanced. I hope the writer/editor makes an attempt to correct the article above. Perhaps keeping “positive thinking” in the text and dropping “positive psychology” from the title would be more appropriate.

February 17, 2016 9:49 pm

All this Positive thinking malarkey is rather insulting. Rather Christian Scientist — you are only depressed because you don’t think positively — it is ALL your own fault.
Imagine if this was extended to OTHER neurochemical diseases. You are only epileptic because you keep having fits.
You are only schizophrenic because you keep hearing voices/imagining things.
You only have insomnia because you won’t go to sleep.
Don’t keep blaming your hypothryroidism– just get off your lazy backside and DO things. Get your thyroid functioning again!!!
in fact, to be polite,
it is a %$^)*&^%$#@# wank!

J.C. Samuelson
February 17, 2016 4:11 pm

Glad others pointed out the author’s conflation of Positive Psychology with Positive Thinking. I’ve long believed the latter to be B.S. and never subscribed to it, but the former – whatever problems it may have of its own – is a different animal.

With that being said, the article does a good job in the space it occupies debunking the notion of positive thinking and the fuzzy reasoning involved.

Jeanne Aloia
February 17, 2016 3:27 pm

I attended a “New Thought/Science of Mind/Religious Science/church for several years (during “The Secret” fraud). You know, parking places magically appear, ad infinitum.) Then I read Barbara Erenreich’s “Bright Sided, How Positive Thinking is Undermining America”. Having had Breast Cancer, as she did, and enduring the Pink Overwhelm, my BS detecter kicked in and I was freed from the guilt associated with (as I put it) not holding my tongue right when I did “positive affirmations”. How sad the people who died thinking they were not positive enough.

Nick Ireland
February 17, 2016 2:53 pm

Many thanks for pointing out the difference between “positive thinking” and “positive psychology.” Very helpful, given I am shortly embarking on a program of CBT and am already fiercely resistant and hostile to “required perky optimism” and presumed psychobabble. Even though I don’t know how it will pan out as yet. I’m hoping if I can change some trigger words like “mindful,” I can extract parts of the method that could be really helpful.

Ironically, the reason for CBT due to CPSTD, was childhood torture by the rigid ALL POSITIVE ONLY method referred to in the last graph of this article, Christian Science. I nearly died from a childhood brain injury treated only by “positive prayer,” and 100% denial there was any injury at all. I was loudly attacked as a child for any illness (an “illusion”), as my being entirely responsible for creating the illusion with negative thinking. That’s funky at age three. “Mind over matter!” was a favored admonition, sometimes severely spoken. Actually, many CS children died, behind closed doors, before manslaughter convictions FINALLY started coming into play (long after my childhood). A friend today has one leg due to a treatable bone disorder as a child. As for mental illness, well of course that’s REALLY an illusion.

The example someone told that it was once thought that polio children should be bullied out of their psychosomatic paralysis. Makes total sense to be.

The several decades of popularity for “all positive all the time” makes me splutter with rage (or fear), and seems to me utterly deluded.

Didn’t mean to rant on for so long, but it was so… topical. Sorry, rant over.

February 17, 2016 12:42 pm

Your article summarizes what I’ve thought for a long time. Thanks for providing a convenient overview of the ideas and evidence that pertain to this issue. But are there any exceptional conditions under which it could be better from a mental health viewpoint to be a cockeyed optimist who engages in pollyannish denial rather than a stark realist who gloomily embraces the negative aspects of existence? For example, what about the terminally ill patient or someone with limited intelligence and poor prospects for a successful adjustment?

Ray Madison
February 17, 2016 12:02 pm

Well, whatever one might think is an overly positive attitude toward our expectations, skeptical thinking as a realistic alternative is overly negative. Curiously critical thinking with an open mind is the more pragmatic road to take. We have evolved to use a trial and error thinking system for the predictive purposes of learning from our mistakes. Use it as optimistically!!

Remo "Uzi" Gwaldabi groove scientist
February 17, 2016 11:42 am

There’s an old song by the Beau Brummels, “You Tell Me Why” One verse I always thought very accurate and may pertain to this topic:

You tell me I will find my way
Tomorrow won’t be like today
You tell me life was meant to be
One-third good two-thirds misery
Tell me why

Not bad advice.

Brian Pansky
February 17, 2016 11:38 am

*The post I linked to is very long. For the specific part I was talking about, search for the heading that says: “First, Psychology Itself Is Not That Reliable”. It talks about psychology in general, and provides further links.

Brian Pansky
February 17, 2016 11:36 am

Thanks Glenn Thomas Davis, I also came here to point out that “Positive Psychology” is not the same as “Positive thinking”. Is it? The author says they are writing a textbook, thus should (hopefully!) know what they are talking about. (not that I bothered to scour the article to see if the author ever reconciled this seeming equivocation, that should have been near the start of the article if anywhere)

Also, just for some extra reading for everyone, we should always be a bit cautious about the findings in ANY branch of psychology, because many of their “findings” fail to be replicated in later studies:

Glenn Thomas Davis
February 17, 2016 10:21 am

The author sets up a straw man version of Positive Psychology and knocks it down. The straw man he describes is in fact not Positive Psychology but Positive Thinking, which is an entirely different thing. This article is a disservice to people who seek to apply critical thinking to psychology and self-help.

Positive Psychology is in fact closely aligned with Cognitive Behavior Therapy. My reading is that Positive Psych is essentially the application of evidence-based therapies such as CBT to the improvement of everyday life for ordinary people, thus expanding psychology’s scope beyond the treatment of mental illness. I’m sure this is overly simplistic, but I’m also pretty sure it’s closer to the truth than the author’s parody version of Positive Psych. It’s also hard to argue with the benefits of such an approach.

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