By Cassie White.
How often have you been told to “look on the bright side” or “focus on the good things” when times are tough?
It can feel as though every self-help book, TV show and family member wants you to stop feeling sad, angry or depressed, and find the silver lining in every difficult situation.
But just how effective is it?
Associate Professor Anthony Grant from the University of Sydney says the term “positive thinking” has been poorly defined and is often misunderstood.
For many people, it means saying daily affirmations, focusing on the good in every situation and putting on a happy face, even when it is the last thing we feel like doing.
But Associate Professor Grant warns that trying to be permanently optimistic about life is highly unrealistic – and generally makes you worse off in the long run.
“It just doesn’t work. When people don’t allow themselves to think about problems or sadness or any other emotion apart from happiness, it’s not helpful at all,” he said.
“In difficult periods in your life, you need to allow yourself to grieve and have a whole range of emotions, because that’s part of the natural healing process.”
A 2009 study found positive self-statements only improved mood and wellbeing in people who already had high self-esteem, but in people with low self-esteem it had the opposite effect.
“Essentially, they knew they were lying to themselves,” Associate Professor Grant says.
“So the paradox of positive thinking is that it works, but only for the people who don’t really need it.”
Optimism ‘with its eyes wide open’
One popular aspect of so-called positive thinking is the belief that whatever we think manifests in our lives, but Associate Professor Grant says that is “clearly not the case”.
“The notion that we create reality through our thinking is just wrong,” he says.
“The mindset we have and how we use our thinking capacity has a big impact on how we experience the world. But there are lots of things that happen that are completely outside our control.”
Psychologist Suzy Green, from The Positivity Institute, warns that seeing the world only through “rose-coloured glasses” can be dangerous.
She says it could be especially so in high-risk situations such as severe illness, where people can potentially be in denial about the outcome and not seek the assistance needed.
Dr Green says she is a proponent of “realistic optimism“, which she describes as “optimism with its eyes wide open”.
“It’s maintaining a realistic, optimistic, mindset in the face of challenges, whereby you’re drawing on your strengths and capacities and working through the situation more optimistically than pessimistically,” she says.
“It would be saying to yourself, ‘Okay, these things could go wrong, but this is what I’ll do if that’s the case’. You’ll have a plan in place and start focusing on the evidence as to why things could turn out right rather than wrong.”