Positive thinking: why doesn't it always work?

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Joe Dispenza


Positive thinking: why doesn't it always work?

Being positive helps, but in some circumstances it is better to give space to a different mental approach. An attitude that allows us to accept uncertainty and the fact that reality is not always as rewarding as we hope will be more useful.

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: 15 November 2021

You may have realized that positive thinking doesn't always work and that maintaining a hopeful attitude does not guarantee the realization of one's expectations. Sometimes, experts say, it's best to embrace a "gentle pessimism" to help us understand that life isn't always in our favor.

This is not necessarily bad. The mind becomes accustomed over time to extreme polarity which leads us to label events as good or bad. It must be understood, however, that in addition to black and white there is also gray and that in this color there is still a thread of light, the one that separates us from pitch darkness.

We live in a present and in a context where uncertainty is constant and fear has become the roommate that lives in our mind. Perhaps, the time has come to adopt another perspective, the one whereby, without giving up positivity and hope, allows us to more effectively navigate current challenges.

Why isn't positive thinking always enough?

Positive thinking has passionate defenders and avid opponents. There is no middle ground. The psychological current popularized by figures such as Martin Seligman or Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 90s is opposed by critical voices such as that of psychologist Julie K. Norem, professor of psychology at the University of Wellesley.

In his essay The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, published in 2001, Julie Norem argues that a very childish view of the concept of positivity has taken hold in our culture. Seligman's lessons have been simplified to the point of turning them into a fad, that of assuming that everything will go if you look at the bright side of life.

According to psychologist Julie Norem, we have come to the extreme point of thinking that if we have a problem or can't see "the light at the end of the tunnel" it means that it is up to us.

Let me be clear: there are times when you just can't see the bright side of life. And that this happens is not only understandable, but also predictable. As Viktor Frankl pointed out, in the face of unusual situations it is normal to react in an unusual way. We must understand, therefore, that positive thinking does not always work, and for several reasons. Let's analyze them.

Thinking positive can make us less able to deal with a negative outcome

Repeating as a mantra "everything will be okay" could be counterproductive. An attitude oriented towards success and which does not take into account other possibilities is dangerous. And if things do not go as we hope, we will feel taken aback, emotionally and psychologically.

The best thing to do in these situations is maintain a realistic attitude: “I hope things go well, but if they go wrong, I will face any outcome. You will accept it and apply adequate coping strategies ”.

Positive thinking can cause us to be passive

Julie K. Norem explains in her book that it is advisable to adopt a somewhat pessimistic perspective on reality. It is about taking into account all the possibilities and saying to ourselves "what I wish and hope can happen, but there is also the possibility that it will not. What will I do, then, in that case? ”.

We must work hard and with maximum effectiveness to avoid a negative result. If we are too confident and assume that everything will work out, we risk adopting a passive attitude, and this can be risky.

When we are anxious and stressed, positive thinking doesn't always work

The anxious mind is unable to see the bright side of life. Positive thinking is not always effective if we are feeling worried, stressed and emotionally unstable. They are those situations in which, however much they repeat to us, “keep your spirits up, everything will be fine” is useless, it doesn't help and we don't even believe it.

In this context, approaches such as that offered by acceptance and commitment therapy are interesting. In this specific case, it can help to understand that life is not easy, that it is permissible to make mistakes, fail or lose hope at times.

However, we cannot lose sight of the commitment made to us; that of not letting ourselves sink and taking care of ourselves.

Extremisms are no good: neither naive positive thinking nor chronic pessimism

Thinking positive isn't always enough, because life is unpredictable. And also because it leads us to mishandle adversity, frustration, fear and suffering.

Life is a kaleidoscope of experiences: sometimes good, sometimes bad, in other cases simply normal. We must learn to navigate on sight, on quiet days and stormy nights.

So, is it better to be pessimistic? Not at all, much less advisable to adopt a naively trusting attitude, of those for which it is enough to desire a lot for something to happen. We live in a complicated present and we have now realized that this formula does not work. Extremes are never positive.

We have to be realistic; we must train ourselves to manage daily challenges, learn to endure unexpected events and even painful events. However, this does not mean giving up hope. Doing so is an essential need. Trusting that better times will come and that we will learn to manage difficulties is always the best strategy.

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