On positive thinking

I’ve never been a fan of positive thinking. I prefer honesty even when it hurts or reveals the things we’d rather not know. Expressing a range of different emotions is what being human is all about. There’s a place for happiness, sadness, grief, anger, fear, love, concern, and worry and I don’t think it’s wise to suppress our emotions. As Nimzovich – a famous chess player – once said, “One cannot always be happy”.

I have never suffered from depression so perhaps I’ve got this wrong but I think it’s unwise to tell a depressed person to lighten up and be happy. Doing so simply avoids the cause of the depression and makes it impossible to address. Kind of like sweeping the dirt under the carpet.

I like action and problem solving. When I find a problem I want to fix it or at least try to. This is probably why I find the climate change problem so frustrating because there’s very little that I, as an individual, can do.

I have never understood how parents of autistic children need to go through three or more experts before they can accept their child has autism but this is quite common. It was very obvious to me right from the beginning that Daniel was different. The diagnosis itself was a huge relief because it meant support and understanding and the beginning of action to solve the problem rather than pretending it wasn’t there. I like to be in control and you can’t be in control if you’re pretending the problem does not exist. I think this is partly why I’m so terrified of earthquakes as they’re totally unpredictable.

There’s a good article in the NYTimes – The Problem with Positive Thinking – in which studies have found that positive thinking diminishes our ability to solve the problems we are facing today.

The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. As we later documented, they also went on to accomplish less during that week.

Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.

This is not to say that I don’t think having dreams and hope are not good for us. They are. But I think what’s more important is honesty, sincerity, and compassion. If we can find those things, we find happiness too.

18 Replies to “On positive thinking”

  1. You are absolutely right Rachel, telling someone suffering from depression to ‘lighten up and be happy’ is absolutely the worst thing to say for so many reasons, not least of all that this creates an even deeper sense of isolation and sorrow for the sufferer than before. In fact, depressed people are often the ones hiding behind laughter and smiles at parties, but nodoby sees the anguish and pain they suffer when alone, going about their daily lives when just making a simple decision is exhausting. I wonder how many times they have thought, ‘Oh yes, if only I would lighten up, I would no longer be depressed. Wow. I never thought of that…’ Fascinating quote from the NY Times. Thanks for this post Rachel.

    1. Yes, I agree it creates even more isolation for that person by putting the blame on them and by making them feel unwelcome in our company or society which is the worst thing to do to someone with depression, I imagine.

    1. I don’t know all that much about it but I think it’s wrong to mask problems with positive thinking because it prevents solutions from being found. For example, if you’re worried about money, positive thinking isn’t going to pay the bills. You need to address the cause of the problem directly to find a solution be it spending less or getting a second job or consolidating debts.

  2. I used to work with a woman whose ‘considered’ opinion of depression was that people who had it only had themselves to blame and there was absolutely no reason why they needed to put themselves through it- I never felt comfortable enough to say to her, that as a person who has experienced the condition several times in their life, that I didn’t appreciate her comments- This was a person who worked in health- My husband, a community mental health nurse said she put the approach to awareness of mental illness back at least 10 years!
    Thinking realistically is one of the best ways to cope with depression- For example, if the morning isn’t going so well to start with, instead of the inner thoughts concluding ‘this is a disaster of a day, nothing is going right for me’, it can be more constructive to adjust the inner dialogue to something like ‘ Blast, I didn’t get to work on time, or, that phone call didn’t yield the results I expected, although if I start on this or take a different angle on that, then the results might change’- and apply that thinking to each new situation one comes across- it takes some practice and its very tiring, and at the same time, small improvements happen- as mood improves then these get noticed!

    1. That sounds like a great strategy you have there: honesty, and small steps at a time. It’s sad when someone who works in health has that attitude. It’s anything but compassionate.

  3. I can’t help but wonder why it’s implied that it’s not possible to have honesty, sincerity, and compassion and an inclination towards positive thinking? And while I agree that one can’t force a depressed individual to cheer up, I do find from personal experience in living with with someone who battles depression, that sometimes they need help seeing some positive in life. When they spiral down, they only see the dark. Talking to the depressed individual and pointing out some positives really does seem to help. As in everything in life, I think it’s about balance. Only focusing on positive is not healthy, but not forcing yourself to see the good when times are tough isn’t healthy either, imho.

    1. I’m not really qualified in how best to treat depression so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I think what you say about having balance is good. There’s also nothing wrong with being positive provided it doesn’t mean underlying problems get ignored. The main concern I have is when someone is ostracised for feeling depressed and made to feel like it is their fault and if only they could see the positive all would be well. But I can’t imagine you would ever do that.

      1. Definitely not. That would be so wrong. Totally agree with you on that.

  4. An insightful post. I couldn’t agree more. There is no point masking a problem. The strategy never leads to a solution.

      1. My daughter is a behaviour interventionist working with pre-school autistic children. I understand a little about the challenges you face with Daniel. You have the right attitude, and I’m certain you provide a supportive environment for him to grow and thrive.

      2. That’s very nice of you to say so. We hope we’re doing the best for him and fortunately we both agree on how best to do that which really helps. Daniel is also doing really well and has made great leaps and strides, especially in the last year.

  5. I prefer to be “an optimist who is sometimes wrong than a pessimist who is always right”. I think I can be positive and yet embrace honesty and sincerity.

    It is only hope and optimism that will help people bounce back when they are down or fail.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist who is sometimes wrong provided the optimist is not knowingly wrong.

  6. I love your take on positive thinking. In my role as a school governor, I’m glad to say that our school has thought very carefully about what messages we want our children to take away with them, what sort of citizens we want them to be. There is a fine line between not having any aspirations, and deluding oneself into believing that you/a situation are/is better than you are. My husband was always positive thinking and I struggled with this a lot. He would dismiss anything negative as harmful. In retrospect, positive thinking put a lot of pressure on me to agree to being something I was not. :-/ I think it can also be that positive thinking could be born out of an overwhelming desire for things to be better than they are, born out of a fundamental insecurity.

    1. Ah, what you say is so true. Positive thinking can force us to be something we are not. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like it? Because there’s something fake about it and I hate fake.

  7. Real positive thinking is recognizing reality, and dealing with it. At least this is the positive thinking I subscribe to.

    A 24/7 positive persona is nothing more than a fantasy. Ever meet someone wearing a plasticized 24/7 smile because no less is expected of them?

    I think you would like my latest blog entry, Contemplating The Negative.

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