Let’s be honest here – if positive thinking alone could really change our lives, we wouldn’t be looking at epidemic-level statistics for loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
But if it didn’t work at all, why is the term even still around?
It turns out the benefits of positive thinking are real – but not in the filtered down way that poorly researched self-help books and gurus will tell you.
The roots of positive psychology
It pays to take a moment to understand how the concept of positive thinking came into being – and how misunderstood the term actually is.
Up until the 1950s, psychology and psychotherapy focussed exclusively on what was wrong with people. It was a ‘disease model’.
Then along came the humanistic psychology movement, led by the likes of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, suggesting that maybe we also needed to put just as much focus on what was right with people. How do we as humans find the courage to stay hopeful? How can we mine our inner resources?
By the end of the century the term ‘the Positive Psychology Movement’ had been coined. It’s focus was on things like resilience, creativity, spirituality, courage, and hope.
So where did we go wrong?
Like many a popular movement (in its heyday positive psychology was touted by the likes of the BBC, the Sunday Times, and the New York Times) people wanted to jump on the bandwagon. This led to a flurry of poorly carried out studies designed to declare that optimism led to happiness. (Better executed studies have since countered most of them). And of course a spate of self-help books soon followed.
Positive psychology was whittled down to just ‘positive thinking’. But that is sort of like saying that good physical health is only about eating carrots.
But the positive psychology movement never proposed we only think positive, or ignore the challenges we face and things we need to heal within ourselves. It merely suggested we also look at how we can gather up our positive qualities to support ourselves in our self-development.
[Read our piece on “Myths About Positive Psychology” for more on this front.].
Why positive thinking alone can be dangerous
Positive thinking has become so mainstream it has its own catchphrases. ‘Think positive!” “It’s all good!” “You are what you think!”.
The insidious idea behind these phrases is that if you have negative thoughts it’s your fault, and you should be able to control them. If you can’t, you are responsible for any outcome, such as your depression and anxiety.
This entirely overlooks the very real trauma many have experienced in life. Whereas positive psychology would champion the resilience and creativity that has seen you get to where you are today, and encourage you to find more inner resources to continue in an even more effective way, positive thinking instead shames you and leave you feeling flawed and guilty.
And imagine if your friend really needs to talk to someone and you tell them rather glibly, ‘think positive, you’ll be fine.” Their weeks spent gaining courage to share is wiped out.
Not only that, putting social pressure on others to feel positive can actually leave them feeling worse than they already did. A 2012 research summary of four separate studies showed that expecting others to feel happy can cause them to instead feel more negative and bad about themselves.
Positive thinking or denial?
Another very real danger of positive thinking is that it can be used to hide denial behind.
It’s one thing to know you are having money issues and to believe you can sort them out with the right help (positive thinking).
But it’s quite another to decide that your money issues will sort themselves out, because ‘it’s all good!”, so off you go to buy that dress you love (denial).
Not sure if you are or aren’t practising denial? Sit down and write a list of pros and cons around your situation. If you’ve not let yourself look at any of those cons until now, and/or if the positives are also things you’ve not quite thought through, then yes, you have likely been in denial.
So when IS positive thinking useful?
Let’s take a cue from cognitive behavioural therapy here. CBT is one of the most evidence based (proven to work) forms of therapy now available, and it uses positive thinking in it’s process.
A CBT therapist asks you to do ‘thought charts’. You recognise a negative thought and right it down. You then find the exact opposite thought, often an extremely positive one. Looking at both the negative and positive thoughts you have come up with, the next task is to find a ‘balanced thought’ that falls somewhere between the two and feels believable to you.
So positive thinking is very effective, not when it is used as denial, but when it is used to show us how unhelpful and untrue our negative thinking is. In this way it can help us open up our minds to possibilities and other perspectives we might not have seen before.
How you can use positive thinking and get results
So seeing a CBT therapist aside, how else can you begin to experience the benefits of positive thinking?
Here are some techniques that therapists use that you can try for yourself:
Mindfulness helps you become aware of your thoughts in the first place. With commitment and practise, you realise that you are not your thoughts, but something much more powerful. And you have the power to choose which thoughts to respond to. Not sure how to practise mindfulness? Read or free and easy-to-follow “Guide to Mindfulness“.
Gratitude is not just positive thinking, it’s the practical art of recognising what is actually already going right in your life. Research proves that taking time each day to practice gratitude has long-reaching psychological benefits – read our article on ‘The Benefits of Gratitude” for more.
Journalling out our negative thoughts helps create space to see the positive side. It also helps you see if you are in denial. You can take a cue from CBT therapy here and do a shortened version of a thought chart: negative thought written out, followed by contrasting positive opposite, followed by finding a few balanced thoughts that land in-between the two. You might also want to write out all your positive experiences – one study found this improved not just mood, but also physical health.
Visualising something positive goes beyond just positive thinking – it can create a positive emotional state. Positive emotional states have been found to increase our capacity to see opportunities and harness our inner resources (called the ‘ broaden and build theory of positive emotions‘). For more, read our article on “The Benefits of Visualisation“.
What talk therapies use positive psychology?
Interested in a therapy that integrates concepts of positive psychology? You might want to look into these talk therapies:
Harley Therapy can help you find a therapist who offers one of the above approaches. With four central London locations, we also now connect you with therapists across the UK via Skype therapy.
Do you still have a question about the benefits of positive thinking? Ask in the public comment box below.