(Scientific American Mind) Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?
Research suggests limits to looking on the sunny side of life
“Accentuate the positive,” the 1944 song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen cheerfully implored us. From Benjamin Franklin’s 1750 Poor Richard’s Almanack (which advised readers that “sorrow is good for nothing but sin”) to today’s parade of motivational speakers, Americans have long embraced an optimistic, “can-do” attitude toward life.
Plug “positive thinking” into Amazon.com, and you will find a never-ending supply of products designed to help us see life through rose-colored lenses, including a “Power of Positive Thinking” wall calendar and an “Overcoming Adversity with Encouragement and Affirmation” poster series.
In fact, however, positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.
Pluses of Pessimism
Despite the popular emphasis on positive thinking, academic psychology was for many decades centered on the negative. Even today a perusal of the typical psychology textbook reveals a predominance of topics dealing with the dark side of life—mental illness, crime, addiction, prejudice and the like—probably reflecting an aim to remediate these personal and social problems.
Then, in the late 1990s, a cadre of prominent psychologists led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman established a field called positive psychology. This burgeoning discipline explores the causes and consequences of happiness, character strengths and virtues, resilience, and other important aspects of psychological adaptation and health. Not all positive psychologists push cheerfulness at any cost—in a 1990 book Seligman warned that optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity.” But many do advocate a perspective that implies that positive thinking is good for all of us, all of the time, noted Bowdoin College psychologist Barbara Held in a 2004 article.