The negative side of positive psychology

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 self-esteem 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 self-affirmation 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 much vaunted “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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