Why Negative Thinking Has Cognitive and Emotional Benefits
Envisioning all possible outcomes is far healthier than only praying for the best.
Positive thinking has long been championed in American culture. While optimism is part of our biological inheritance—when we’re not hopeful about the future, anxiety and depression can easily transform into suicidal tendencies—positive thinking and positive psychology grew into billion-dollar industries, beginning with Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book, The Power of Positive Thinking.
Whereas the first self-help book, Self-Help, an 1855 volume by Scottish political reformer Samuel Smiles, was a tribute to the importance of failure, Peale’s objective was quite different. After introducing the concept of “positive thinking,” he taught a continuous and permanent state of optimism. He sold over five million copies while remaining on the NY Times bestsellers list for 186 consecutive weeks, even as he was dubbed a con man and his theories were clinically challenged.
Peale’s message was too seductive for a growingly dissatisfied culture like America, in which more is never enough. This messaging was repeated in 2006 when an equally dubious writer published The Secret, taking the metaphysics of positive thought to new heights. Rhonda Byrne promised that if you weren’t living right, you weren’t thinking right, which set up readers to experience serious guilt—and to purchase subsequent courses, books, workshops, and the rest of the incredible catalog of add-ons that followed.
All the while the science of optimism has been on unstable ground. In fact, focusing on the worst might be more cognitively and emotionally beneficial than hoping for the best. As Oliver Burkeman, a positive psychology critic and columnist at The Guardian, argues:
[I]t’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative—insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness—that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
Burkeman suggests that fully experiencing negative emotions steels you against the reality of life’s transience. The “negative path” teaches us to learn to enjoy times of uncertainty, embrace insecurity, and, with a head-nod to Samuel Smiles, constantly learn from failure.
Real world data back this up. A 2010 study, published in the journal Emotion, discovered that students who felt optimistic about test scores were more distraught when not hitting their target than doubtful students who ended up scoring higher than expected. The authors conclude that proactively managing expectations to “avoid the costs of optimism” might just be a better strategy.
Thinking critically about health also proves beneficial. This study looked at 148 adults between the age of 57 and 77. Volunteers optimistic about their health were more likely to display early signs of heart disease than those critical of their ticker. Sure, doubt itself can be crippling, but a healthy dose of it is, well, healthy.
In her book, Rethinking Positive Psychology, NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen discusses a group of women trying to lose weight. Over the course of a year, women that envisioned a slimmer version of themselves lost an average of twenty-four pounds less than women who viewed their bodies more negatively. As Oettingen writes:
The starry-eyed dreamers in the study were less energized to behave in ways that helped them lose weight.
This is not an ode to unfettered negativity: women (and to a lesser degree, men) that are too hard on their weight become candidates for eating disorders and radical dieting. But as Oettingen writes, the short-term alleviation from sadness promoted by positive thinking often results in long-term frustration. Increased depression was observed in positive thinkers over longer stretches of time; Oettingen attributes this, in part, to an addiction to “short-term pleasure” achieved through contemplating a perfect, or at least better, future.
Negative thinking isn’t even the proper term. Let’s call it discerning thought. Sure, your heart feels fine now, but you consume more sugar than you should, which is true for most Americans. Instead of believing that no pain equals no problem, you get everything checked out. You’re aware of the risks and foresee potential danger instead of envisioning a healthy life until you die peacefully in your sleep one night at age one hundred.
Discernment requires nuance, a quality which, in the hostile social media-dominated nation we currently occupy, we’re lacking. In a 2016 study, a majority of white Americans stated that America has changed for the worse since the fifties (not so for blacks and Hispanics), even though we live in the most financially prosperous country in the history of the world. Chronic dissatisfaction is crippling. It makes sense we’d tip too far in the other direction trying to counter our persistent craving for more.
Nuance means we’ll weigh the possibilities instead of picturing the best possible outcome. That includes envisioning the ideal and potential pitfalls. Preparing yourself for abundance, to borrow a term popular in the new age and yoga communities, is a certain way to ensure disappointment. It’s not that you can’t hope for the best of all worlds. It just means you have to live in this one, whatever it presents. It means living a contented life, not one fueled by a constant grasping for pleasure.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
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