The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

In an old Saturday Night Live skit the character, Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken, repeats the daily positive affirmation, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit people like me.” From Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 best seller, The Power of Positive Thinking, to Rhonda Byrne’s brilliantly marketed 2006 release of The Secret, writers have stoked the seductive belief that by focusing thoughts toward the positive one can achieve anything.

Over the past two decades we’ve counseled numerous people dancing through foreclosures, bankruptcies and business failures caused by excessive optimism. Stressed out loved ones drag them to counseling in hopes of a healthy infusion of realism to stop the next catastrophic loss. In 1996 Allen Greenspan coined the term “irrational exuberance” referring to soaring asset values that could painfully contract (as anyone who’s owned stock since the 1990’s knows). The old wisdom, “save for a rainy day” and “don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched” has been replaced by, “You are a magnet attracting to you all things, via the signal you are emitting through your thoughts and feelings.”

In our counseling and anger management classes we recommend substituting self hypnotizing statements that fuel anger like, “I can’t take this any more” with positive statements such as, “I can calm myself down and find a solution.” Rather than whipping up a toxic lather of foaming-at-the-mouth anger, this strategy encourages self calming behavior. Positive thinking toward a realistic goal leads to greater success– but not because the thoughts have magical properties. According to research by Dr. Martin Seligman, optimistic thinkers tend to persist through frustration when pessimists tend to give up. Positive thinking gets you off the couch doing something to make your life better.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that people with low self-esteem suffer more when told to use affirmations like, “I’m a lovable person” because the affirmation just confirms their low opinion of themselves. If you have low self esteem it’s better to motivate yourself to act towards small achievable goals. Maybe you don’t love yourself, but you love your garden. Take pride in cultivating the garden. Then tell yourself, realistically, “I am good at gardening.”

Dr. Seligman suggests that pessimism provides some benefits. It can keep us from taking extreme risks. Excessive positive thinking can prevent a realistic appraisal of the risks/benefits of an action. Ever talked to a gambler after a Las Vegas vacation? Gamblers count wins, but seem vague about losses. Positive thinking can often conceal the addict’s denial. As Keenen Ivory Wayans quipped, “Slot machines are like crack for old people.”  A healthy dose of pessimism might inoculate the gambling addict from catching Keno flu.

Does this mean we should shun all positive thoughts for the “Bah! Humbug!” of Ebenezer Scrooge? Researchers have found that optimists achieve more, live longer, have better health, relationships, and even better survival rates with some cancers. One way to get the benefit of both optimism and pessimism is to practice a flexible optimism. If the costs of a failure are serious or potentially deadly (could get AIDS, go bankrupt, die) then think pessimistically. If the costs of failure are minor (might get embarrassed, could lose a few dollars) then power up your positive thinking and press on. You might just write the next best seller.