The Not-So-Silver Lining: When Positive Thinking Backfires

The Not-So-Silver Lining: When Positive Thinking Backfires


Go to UniverseUnboxed.com to learn about SciShow science kits, and stick around to the end of this episode to hear more about this exciting new SciShow project! [INTRO ♪] You’ve probably had a friend tell you to, like, “look on the bright side” when something bad happens. Or, maybe you’ve heard someone say “happiness is a choice” or “if you believe it, you can achieve it.” This idea that you can think your way to happiness, health, and success has been the topic of countless books, motivational speeches, meditation apps, and videos. But it turns out, like with pretty much everything in psychology, the truth is more complicated. And thinking positively can sometimes backfire and make you feel worse. This idea that positive thoughts will manifest in your everyday life is so widespread now that it’s almost gimmicky. Like, you know those cheesy self-help books that have you repeat “I am strong, I am confident, I am worthy of love, and gosh darn it, people like me.” But the idea that our thoughts have power over our life hasn’t actually been around for that long. The term “positive psychology”–which refers to any kind of psychological intervention that focuses on strengths and good qualities—was first cited in 1954. And the idea that thoughts can impact our health and well-being only started to gain scientific credibility in the mid 1980s with a study that found that people who were inclined to look on the bright side of life were less bothered by things like stress or muscle soreness. In fact, the positive psychology movement as we know it today didn’t really come about until the late ’90s. The tenets of this movement quickly became adopted all over the place—from the business world, to the US military, and even some school systems—as a way to improve coping skills, performance, and mental health. And the rest, as they say, is history. But for all the hype about positive thinking, the evidence for effectiveness is still pretty weak. A 2010 review points out that much of the
research is correlational. Positive thinking has been associated with better health and longer life, for example, but that doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other. There are a lot of other contributing factors that just aren’t being captured by the current studies. And the causation could go the other way—after all, it would not be super surprising if being healthier made you see the world in a more positive light. Also, a growing body of research has shown that positive psychology can, ironically, be kind of negative. When study participants are told to imagine a positive outcome, they often end up being less likely to achieve their goals. Research suggests that’s because such positive fantasizing kind of kills your motivation. For example, researchers in a 1999 study found that undergraduates who focused on getting a higher grade on a test studied less, which resulted in a lower grade. And in another study, participants that envisioned themselves getting their dream job ended up sending out fewer applications, and not surprisingly, getting fewer job offers. This isn’t the only way positive psychology can backfire. A study done in 2009 found that repeating positive self-statements like “I am a lovable person” actually made people with low self-esteem feel worse. The researchers suggested this might be because those mantras reminded them of all the ways they weren’t measuring up. Instead of boosting their esteem, the statements seemed to lead the participants to dwell on why those positive phrases weren’t true for them. And you might think that positive thinking would be most useful when life is really hard—like, if you were diagnosed with cancer. But a 2010 review of positive psychology in cancer care found that attitude had no effect on survival. In fact, negative emotions tend to help
people process chronic illnesses better. Psychologists think this could be because focusing on the positive becomes a form of denial, while feeling all those awful feels lets people deal with the realities of their situation. And there are other times when it’s helpful to take off the rose-colored glasses, because psychologists have found that we process information differently depending on how we feel. In short, your brain puts more effort into careful, thoughtful analysis of the world around you when you feel kind of crummy, because it’s trying to figure out the best way to fix whatever you feel is broken. Studies have found that negative moods enhance systematic processing in your brain, for example—so being pessimistic can help you form stronger, more persuasive arguments and help you distinguish fact from fiction. And pessimism can improve your memory, as studies have found that when you’re in a good mood, your brain doesn’t really take the time to distinguish important information from useless details. This is why I remember nothing. Negative moods can also help you avoid making mistakes, since processing all the worst-case possibilities can make you work harder to avoid those potential pitfalls. So I guess just be pessimistic and sad! [laughs] No, that’s not what we’re saying. Positive thinking can work—sometimes. For example, a 2015 brain imaging study of 67 people found that self-affirmations based on the participants values activated the reward centers of their brains and motivated them to change their future actions. But context really matters. For example, a 2012 study found that when you think people expect you not to feel sad about something, that actually makes you feel more sad about it. Researchers have also found that the effectiveness of positive thinking is dependent on individual factors like how anxious you are, your personality, your cultural background and belief system, and what kind of coping mechanisms you have. Take that 2009 study, for example—the one that found that positive self-statements backfired for people with low self-esteem. It also found that they worked for people who had high self-esteem: those participants felt significantly better after repeating the mantras. And there’s one group of people where positive thinking pretty much never works–they’re called defensive pessimists. They’re the people who overthink everything and imagine all the things that could go wrong in a situation. And if that sounds like you? You’re not alone—psychologists estimate as many as 30% of people may be defensively pessimistic. As doomsday as this kind of thinking might seem, a number of studies have found that imagining all the worst case scenarios is a defensive pessimist’s preferred coping style, and if you take that away, they’re worse off. Their negative thinking makes them less prone to experiencing depression when something bad happens, like a friend dies, because they spend more time bracing for the worst. And their pessimistic outlook can also help motivate them to take control in situations, and strange as it might seem, it can boost their confidence. But when they’re forced to be optimistic,
that damages their performance. So for some people, always looking on the dark side of life is actually better than trying to see that silver lining. It seems that, like with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for boosting self-esteem or dealing with all the terrible stuff life throws at you. And if you think about it, you might already know what works best for you. If you feel like you’re forcing yourself to think happy thoughts and it really isn’t helping…you’re probably right. But if repeating “I am a lovable person” brings you confidence and joy, go for it! We’re not here to yuck on your yums—we’re just here to give you the facts. Before you go, we have a very exciting announcement. SciShow has just launched Universe Unboxed, our very own line of science experiment kits for kids elementary school-aged and older. They’re packed full of fun experiments which teach specific science concepts, and for each, there is a video demonstration featuring me! So you can see how it’s done and guess what happened before you learn the science behind them. Like, in the “Brain Teasers” kit, you learn how to do some things that seem impossible, like fit an inflated balloon inside of a bottle. Turns out you can’t just put a deflated balloon in first and blow it up from the outside—and that has everything to do with how air and gas pressures work. In addition to explaining the experiments, we also explain how scientists actually use the scientific concepts you’re learning in the real world. So you’re not just learning how science
works—you’re learning why it matters. To buy one of these kits for yourself or your favorite kid, or to find them in a store near you, check out UniverseUnboxed.com. [OUTRO ♪]

100 Comments

  1. I grew up learning that positivity was “naive and stupid; perfect recipe for getting yourself killed” anyway. Now I get yelled at for not being positive. You cannot win for losing!!!!

    Also, I keep getting told that because of my physical disability, I have a mental disability that prevents me from knowing how the real world works. Everyone else seems to know me better than I know myself, and because of that I gre up wrong, and my dreams are wrong! Is it no wonder I am going to be alone for the rest of my life! Nobody cares!

  2. As a 15 year old sure I'm young but wise enough that trying to think positive won't work because well…things will get worse, so I'm gonna have to deal with it

  3. When people say that happiness is a choice, it really irritates me. How do you know what a person is going through? Sure this phrase is annoying to someone who's upset about dropping a soda on their favorite shirt or something like that, but what about people who've just lost a loved one, or who've been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer? In cases like that, such a phrase is downright insulting. What's even worse is when they don't allow you to express any negative emotion. I always get over having a terrible day much faster if I can find an isolated place and cry without restraint for a few minutes. It always has to be isolated, though, or well-meaning people will rush in with all this positive-thinking nonsense and make me feel worse off than I started. I understand that explosive fits of emotion can be disruptive and temporarily reduce productivity. That being said, letting self-doubt, guilt, and grief fester behind a mask of positive thinking is much worse in the long run.

  4. What if this forced positive thinking caused the worldwide mental health crisis? After all, faking happiness is a depression sympton, so forcing on yourself a sympton on depression, maybe could cause more problems.

  5. What about sports? I'm a wrestler and much of practice and matches is mental. Also, what about the pygmalion effect?

  6. Everyone: You'll do great, don't worry about that really hard university class!
    Me: fails class
    Everyone: insert surprized Pikachu here

    I often say I'm painfully optimistic since I often shrug things off saying it will be fine as a way to cope with anxiety and my ADHD, but it usually comes back to bite me, usually because it leads to procrastinating, AKA, what I'm doing now when I have a hard computer assignment due tomorrow…

  7. I went to a counselor on an urgent basis because my multiple chronic illnesses and trying to force my body to still work through constant pain and exhaustion was making life unlivable.

    The counselor told me to smile and think happy thoughts and I would feel happier. I almost walked out then. But I just told the counselor to please read my whole medical file before the next visit.

    I showed up for my visit later that week willing to give it one more shot. The counselor apologized for the last visit and said she was transferring my case to her colleague who dealt with patients with terminal illness because while I was not terminal, I was dealing with just as many illnesses and stressor. Smiling was not going to cut it. 🙄

  8. The problem with forcing yourself to think positive when you’re depressed is that you’re not prepared. When something goes wrong, you weren’t ready for it. Or at least that’s the case for me. Thinking negatively makes me more prepared…

  9. Could be wrong but IIRC, Maslow and Rogers started the 3rd force of psych (humanistic/positive psych) in the late 70s

  10. I get defensive pessimists….either you're right, which at least feels good.
    Or you're wrong and things luckily aren't as bad as you envisioned them…which also is good.

    Either way, you're always good XD

  11. I just told my friend about this concept the other day. It's so ridiculous that people think saying "Sunflowers are growing! You have no reason to be sad! :)" Like….its HUMAN to be sad sometimes. Its NOT human to have flower rainbows shooting out of your ass with this faux positivity garbage. Its ok to not always be happy. Thats what makes you a human being.

  12. I love this video so much!!! Hey guys, do you know byung chul han? He has some eye opening essays on modern positivity….

  13. The positive thinking movement was indoctrination by corporate goons to convince slaves to tolerate bad conditions. Just like slave owners preached GAWD intended you to be a slave, obey massuh in all things and you will go to heaven.
    During the same period, they learned to use psychology to sell merchandise. Sex is all. Your overwhelming pretense of positivity is in opposition to the message.

  14. with ptsd, positive thinking advice kind of feels the same as if someone said it's my fault that the bad things that happened to me hurt so much. it's pretty similar to what the people who did the bad things said too; it's gaslighting

  15. So being depressed leads to more empirical thinking. And when you're happy you basically don't know what you're talking about? Makes sense to me.

  16. For all the people who say that they were depressed and CHOSE not to be, then you arnt depressed, you dont get to choose when you can be happy. If you have someone or that thing that makes you happy count yourself blessed. i myself would choose someone who cares, over being given a million dollars but still having my depression. I literally bursted into tears when for the first time in almost a decade i was shown compassion. I had honestly forgotten what it truly felt like to be happy. The struggle is real for those who have the deepest of sadness on there hearts and shoulders. This isnt a divot in the ground that one can step out of, its a cave that is too dark and slippery to get out of and too many just resign themselves to giving up and dying in there which sadly some really do.

    Advice for those who say that they are there for someone they know with truly deep depression, you need to really be there for them and its not that you need to hawk and mother them. You just have to show them your helping hand is real and that there is a path out of the hole. They are going to push you away at first because thats the nature of the beast, but if they see that your hand is still there, it will mean everything to them and it will have a more profound effect than almost anything else that can be done.

  17. You should update your video with the latest research. The causality link has been found. It has to do with Dopamine and how the brain works. Il is not exactly positivism that makes you better, but positivism about your strength. That is why it is misleading for a lot of people. They were also able to prove the causality link with the number of leukocyte and the healh of a person. They also found out that fear counteract all of thoses benefits in an instant. That is on reason it is hard to for some people to experience it and probably an explanation of why pessimists perform worst when they think about positive things. This part has not been proven yet. You shoul speak with this guy to update your video: https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/faculty/profiles/c/cable-d

  18. That off-hand "this is why I remember nothing" was just… Ah, the delivery was hilarious. I cracked and missed next two minutes of the video 😀

  19. Positive thinking is both the first mistake and the death knell of any smart person. Growing up, I knew at first deep down that it would be hard to get a decent job when I became an adult, but I began to believe the nonsense and propaganda that "Knowledge is power" and that America is a "Democracy". I was unprepared when I graduated and they suddenly said that all of high school knowledge was worthless to society. I have never recovered and now I am forced to collect welfare.

  20. I have one of those neighbors who would always tell me that I should be blessed that I can do alot of things for myself despite my disability. Yesterday, I wasn't feeling that great and I could tell that she was about to say that I should be happy, I cut her off mid setence and said that constantly telling someone that they should be blessed when they are having a bad day can actually backfire and make them feel worse when all they wanted was a shoulder to cry on.

  21. Adults with terminal illnesses have to get a lot done in relatively short time. As horrible as it is to know you're dying, especially when leaving young children behind, feeling like you're accomplishing what needs to be done to smooth the transition for loved ones requires being firmly grounded in the reality of the situation. Mantras are a waste of precious time.

  22. Life is an eddy in of despair in an ever darkening universe, illuminated by false hopes, soon smashed into nothingness. Enjoy the rest of your day.

  23. Just did some reading on Wikipedia about defensive pessimism. They make a clear distinction on there between ordinary pessimism and defensive pessimism. Basically, pessimism is thinking about the worst things that could happen but doing nothing about it. Defensive pessimism is characterised by thinking the worst then planning and acting to prevent the worst from happening. I think I'm somewhere halfway inbetween!

  24. Yeah… It usually works with me but I remember that time when I tried to positive think my way to feeling better and… I ended up crying like a banshee lol

  25. I think of positive thoughts as cognitive stimulants. They might make you high for a bit, but then they wear off. Unless that extra little push they give you allows you to solve a salient problem, you end up back where you started.

  26. "hey, why don't you just go outside? You gotta stop all this negative thinking, it's not good for you!"
    😒😒😒😒

  27. Finally! Thank you for this video. I've been trying to explain this to people. I worked in mental health and even professionals perpetuate this misconception! Now I'm on the "other side of the desk" and explaining it to my providers isn't working. I'm sending this video. Thank you! 🙏🌺

  28. Well that was a downer. Since this is YouTube I'm gonna go ahead a assume the comment section is chock full of positive energy.

  29. Just keep in mind that no one loves the positive thinking stuff as much as casino owners. Also stoicism is about visualizing the worst type of outcome, not the best, you will be less disapointed this way.

  30. If you have any of the conditions associated with anxiety (GAD, OCD, PTSD etc. ). Do not force yourself to think or feel positive.

    I have OCD. I wish I had a simple rulebook of what to do or avoid in order to live perfectly(don't we all?)

    But this is one rule I firmly believe.

    It will save you from a whole lot of self perpetuated misery if you are able to feel the discomfort, uncertainty or even trauma. With a proper support system and reliance on healthy habits/routines… Feeling good arises itself.

    Forcing myself to think positive thoughts wrecked my self esteem harder than Hulk can smash. I can't imagine what insidious damage it is doing to others who are much worse off than me.

    Seriously, feeling weak takes the most strength of all. Everyone deserves acceptance for what and how they feel. From others and from the self.

    Peace.

  31. When it comes to telling yourself positive things, there needs to be a few conditions for it actually be effective.
    1. You have to want to do this. If someone else is telling you to or forcing you to, then your mindset isn't in the right place and it will be more damaging.
    2. You have to believe what you are telling yourself & tell yourself those things because you actually want to create a change. If you're telling yourself positive things to try to counteract negative things, it won't work well because you'll constantly think of the negatives because that is the reason you're doing it. I remember hearing somewhere "it takes 7 positive statements said to a person to counteract 1 negative".
    3. It needs to be specific & directed to you, by you. "I'm a lovable person" sounds like it's a defense, not a tool for change. It also requires other people's influence, which you can't control. Figure out why "you're not a lovable person" first. If it's because you've been called ugly or think you're ugly yourself, then you need to tell yourself "I am beautiful" & believe it. It doesn't matter what other people think of your looks, all that matters is that you think you are beautiful.

    Again, this all needs to be on a personal level. I know that's hard because a person may not think of this themselves, but it's not easy to have someone suggest it either. None of this is to say "happiness is a choice" because, though you can "choose" to be happy, it's not necessarily real happiness, but rather an act. Not good. The idea is to create change, not fix something that's broken.

    Also, I'm not a scientist. This is based on personal experience & observations. If you disagree or agree, I'm happy to discuss!

  32. Positive thinking is what get you kidnapped, positive thinking is what get you robbed, positive thinking is what get you decieved. Positive thinking can make you ignorant and naïve.

  33. What about CBT, isn't it essentially trying to fix negative thought patterns and has been proven to be quite succesful, or am I completely mistaken here?

  34. Force-fed positivity only envelopes oneself in a chrysalis. And this chrysalis can easily turn a prison. I know this myself. Feeling down is humane. Feeling sad is humane. And the society seems to forget about it. That we are all human. And not these infallible idols.

  35. It might work for most people most of the time in petty every day circumstances. But then you just have a bunch of people who were already hopeful and positive.

    The problem arises when someone who previously had been positive and hopeful, and then came to an end that they were unable to conquer through positive thinking. In this case, I think it is better to think negative. Think and feel the worst possible thing, and it is like a release. I know it seems weird. But I plan to write a book on it. All I know now, it helped me.

  36. Don't tell yourself to be positive.

    Tell yourself all the things you did right, and how it's still possible to do that.

  37. Emotophobia is the inability to feel negative emotions. Apparently the key is to embrace your negative emotions. I think I see what is going on here!

  38. As someone who has been very suicidal i can tell you having a positive mindset is extremely important, at least for me. Because reinforcing that positive thinking, "I can do this, I am able, things will get better, I can't give up, things will work out, itll be okay, I am good and worth something and I can work this out", or letting myself fall into the default thinking, "I can't do this, it's impossible, I'm selfish and lazy and worthless, I'm not able, there's no point in trying, there's no reason to try and no hope, things will never change, I should just kill myself already because that's the only escape" really makes all the difference even if my reality hasn't changed.

  39. When I’m down and people insult me I actually do better. Because then I do things out of spite. Wanna succeed at life? Do everything out of spite of your enemies.

  40. The day before my 12th birthday was probably one of the worst days of my life, nothing was going like I wanted it to, I felt miserable, I couldn't stop crying and I felt bad because I thought there was no way I would be in a good enough mood to celebrate my birthday tomorrow until I realized that it's okay to be sad Sometimes, I didn't have to be happy on my birthday, and as dumb as it sounds, that immediately lifted a huge weight of my chest and made me feel so much better, so..
    To anyone who needs to hear this, it's okay to feel sad despite what other people might expect from you <3

  41. Oh the joyful power of pessimism! I had a positive psychology teacher in college. I would leave her class on the verge of tears and I couldn’t figure out why… when I got into Schopenhauer and Camus I really began to see the flaws of her approach.

  42. i don't get any better at something when i just 'believe' it happens and instead it makes me upset that it doesn't work and that im incompetent at doing something everything everyone else can easily do and everyone including all my friends and family do and tell me to do and when it doesn't work they tell me to do it more and that it will work that im just nor doing it enough or believing it enough and im tired of it

  43. And then being around depressed ppl in your life could lead to less positive thinking, it's pretty much your situation. Get away from the depressed ppl if you don't want the misery?

  44. Look at the world as it is. Not everything is positive. So if you tell someone who lost their job, lost a loved one, and had a heart attack in the same month, you definitely shouldn't say "well, look on the bright side…".

  45. Thank you for such an honest report! I believe it is the height of cruelty for medical professionals to tell incurable, suffering patients to think themselves well!

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