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Forget positive thinking


“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. – Winston Churchill

Optimists tend to earn more money. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And numerous studies link optimism to better health, relationships and happiness. Optimism, though, is often confused with “positive thinking” as in viewing everything with rose-tinted glasses, a bit Pollyanna-ish, no matter what the situation.

This is irrational optimism or, what I call, irritating optimism. We are hard-wired, though towards this optimism: for example, almost all of us believe ourselves to be in the top 20% of the population when it comes to driving or managing a business. Almost all of us are irrationally optimistic about our health and lifespan- all of us like to think that we will live long and healthy lives. We also hugely underestimate the likelihood of losing our job, getting divorced or getting cancer. In business, optimism can lead to unrealistic forecasts. This is all about our innate belief that the future can be better than the past, or even the present. But this optimistic bias can also inspire and protect us.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot in “The Optimism Bias” says we need to be able to imagine alternative realities and need to believe that we can achieve them. Such hope helps motivate us to pursue our goals, otherwise we might as well give up.

I still believe positive thinking has a lot to answer for though. There is a huge industry built on the back of it. Barbara Ehrenreich in her book “Smile or Die. How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World”, states that positive thinking has become a cult in the US and that people are addicted to it. Putting on a happy face is the only way forward, no matter what the circumstances are. Any negative thoughts must be banished as they will lead to negative results. Books like “The Secret”a huge bestseller worldwide contribute to this and feed into a vulnerable mindset that accepts that everything that happens to you is dictated by the “law of attraction”. This then leads to irrational optimism (which, after all, is our natural bias anyway) where mindset is all that matters. This can actually be very dangerous. “The Secret” sells itself by promising that “Everything is possible. Nothing is impossible”. This sounds great, but the truth is we can’t change outcomes by thoughts and affirmations alone. And now, more than ever before, it is positive action which is what will help us. Rooted in our reality.

Psychology journalist Oliver Burkeman wants us all to start thinking more negatively. He believes society’s obsession with positivity is actually making most of us more unhappy. In his groundbreaking new book, “The Antidote” Burkeman draws on personal experiences and scientific research to introduce a new, refreshing way of thinking called ‘the negative path’. The negative path is all about embracing those feelings we’re taught to avoid – failure, pessimism, insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety. It’s not about feeling gloomy but instead seeing the bigger picture by being more realistic about happiness.

Some people say that they are neither an optimist or a pessimist but a realist. But both pessimists and optimists can make realistic assessments of a situation. It is far more about how you respond to that situation that defines you as an optimist. And to what extent you are able to take positive action to handle adversity and challenges.

So what kind of optimist are you? 

4 Responses

  1. Type of Optimist?

    I’m a cynic; as in pessimism over optimism = cynicism.

    Maybe it’s my age and my working background (ex-RAF and now working amongst a lot of ex-RAF) but try as I might it seems the optimism has been beaten out of me and I think that’s what we call a realist here 🙂

    Actually, as  a Blackburn Rovers season ticket holder, we Rovers fans have seen enough excessive optimism/positive-thinking…!!! :-/

  2. Remembering the positive and the negative…

    I am an avoidant optimist. The glass is neither half full nor empty. It is at the level I chose to fill it to.

    In a similar way that people have a preference for left or right-handedness, based on the dominance of one brain hemisphere, neuroscience has discovered other opposing dominance characteristics between the left and right Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). People who say that they are neither an optimist or a pessimist but a realist may have an motivational system which reflects inhibiting personality traits for avoidance behaviours which, through a combination of evolution and reinforced experiences, means they really are optimistic but very cautious about that tiger hiding in the grass. Yes, the irritating “positive thinking movement” with its linear, over simplistic solutions has a lot to answer for by ignoring the balance that is needed between negative and positive thinking and the different responses to adversity and action by approach or avoidance personality types.
    Berkman E. T. & Lieberman, M. D. (2010). Approaching the bad and avoiding the good: Lateral prefrontal cortical asymmetry distinguishes between action and valence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 22(9), 1970–1979
    Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M. F. (2005) Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist. 60(7) 678-686.
    Fox. E. (2012) Rainy Brain Sunny Brain: the new science of optimism and pessimism. New York: Basic Books.

  3. Cynicism

    HI Phil

    Thanks – great response. So as we get older maybe we get less optimistic as reality sets in…? I still think there is a healthy sort of optimism – one that can propel you forward when you need it but keeps strong hold of reality, even if that means including a good dose of cycnicism…

  4. Optimism

    Thanks Martin – your response and insights are much appreciated and thank you so much for the references you included. It really helps with explaining and clarifying this whole subject which gets glossed over with all this "positive thinking" stuff.


    Emma Sue

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