"It's all going to be okay." says the neurotypical person with very little help to offer. While many people believe that the secret to living life peacefully is positive thinking, it might just not be the truth. There are bestselling novels that propagate the idea that positive thinking is the one big life hack - but is it true?
The constant badgering of the idea that all we need to do is "think positive" is difficult to steer away from, but what's worse are its actual effects on our lives. More importantly, the thought that staying positive in the worst of times can be a little harrowing.
Why "Positive Thinking" Is A Troubling Concept
Let's just put it out there that there is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking positively - in fact, it does help a lot of people get through things. I am a 100% for positive thinking. But here's what the problem is - when we think everything is OK there's no motivation to improve.
It's as simple as that. When everything in your head seems alright, why would you want to change anything? Basically, when you think everything is okay, everything is in place - the call for action is zero. You're stagnating in your current situation, but you think you're making it better.
But all the stigma around "negative thinking" really restricts us from constructive criticism towards ourself. First off, "negative thinking" is what is usually associated with questioning ourselves, our situations and our habits. But how is that a bad thing? If you think something about you is off, question it. Then fix it. What substitutes as negative thinking is usually just self-improvement, which of course can be sought through positive thinking - but critical thinking makes more of an impact.
Usually, the biggest difference between negative and positive thinking is how real we are to ourselves. With positive thinking we usually create a bubble - "everything will work itself out," "there's nothing wrong, it'll be okay." But, with critical thinking, we move along lines of self-awareness - "Everything is a mess. I need to do something," "Things aren't working out, I need to change my outlook."
The idea that positive thinking = better person is not true, you don't have to be flowers and fluff all the time, sometimes, thorns and needles work better. Constant positive thinking, some researchers say, means a person can never relax — because that’s the moment a “negative” thought might squirm its way to the surface. And insisting that “everything works out” offers you no back-up plan for when things don’t work out.
One study found that when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions more frequently. Another study found that people with low self-esteem who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”) ended up feeling worse than people who didn’t repeat the phrase.
Some researchers have linked the pressure to “think positive” to personal self-blame (“If I can’t be happy, it must be my fault for not being positive enough”). Denial’s another potential side effect of positive thinking, which then sometimes turns into delusion.
In fact, too much positive thinking can actually be a sign of a mood disorder, says Mark Banschick, M.D., a psychiatrist and Greatist expert. People with bipolar disorder (or its variations, bipolar II and cyclothymia) experience states of excessive positive thinking called “mania” that can interfere with their experience of reality and cause them to engage in potentially self-destructive behaviour (driving at 120 mph, doing lots of drugs, stealing — because “everything’s great and nothing can hurt me”).
Though this manic feeling isn't common to everyone, it can lead to a lack of judgement for a lot of people. Positive thinking can also become a way of avoiding necessary action, an issue Banschick sees in many male clients in their early 20s. People might say “everything’s fine” even when it’s not — it’s a way of convincing ourselves we’re doing something about a given situation (a crappy job, a looming deadline, an issue with a partner) without actually doing anything.
Should We Be Thinking "Negatively" Then?
The answer is moderation, just as with anything else. A little negative thinking might actually do us some good. One study found that people in negative moods can produce better-quality and more persuasive arguments than people in a positive mood. Negative moods can also improve memory and mental accuracy, and other research suggests that negative thinking might prompt us to think more carefully.
By preparing for the worst, there’s a chance we actually decrease our suffering down the road. In contrast, trying to “correct” negative thoughts can actually intensify them and make you feel more insufferable.
But this isn't to say that we should all just drop our morals and become Nihilists, it's the moderation that's important. Keeping in touch with reality and working towards making things better hardly counts as a negative attitude. Instead of focusing on being perfect or having things in order all the time - try to see if you can actually make those goals happen, one step at a time.