When “just think positively” backfires

Most of us have likely heard the suggestion to “think positive” when we are in tough or distressing situations. For some people, this may truly be more difficult than for others. Although well meaning, suggesting positive thinking may result in a rebound effect.

Researchers at Michigan State University have discovered brain markers that indicate a propensity toward positive or negative thought. In other words, we tend to be hardwired biologically. The researchers recorded brain activity while showing graphic images to study participants. Positive thinkers showed less brain activity than negative thinkers. What’s more, the request to decrease negative emotions backfired to make negative emotions worse, shown by increased brain activity.

The take-away? Suggesting to people that they think more positively in tough situations or transitions probably won’t work. If they were hardwired for this, they would probably be doing it already. (This, in part, is what concerns me about the self-help, positive thinking industry. But I digress…) What works better, according to lead researcher, Jason Moser, is to have the person “think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

As a positive psychology practitioner, one of my first strategies to help someone navigate a major life transition would be to employ relevant character strengths, such as creativity, judgment, bravery and hope. (Other character strengths may also be useful for some people in considering the problem differently, too.)

Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things.

Judgment: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides.

Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain.

Hope: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it.

Boosting the use of these strengths in difficult times may be just what is needed to help the person navigate the tough times without the added (and useless) pressure of also having to “think positive.” Even if they are not among your top character strengths, they can be boosted.  For brief definitions of these suggested character strengths, see below. Then, think about ways you can use them as you find yourself reacting to difficult situations. They may just help move you from negative thinking to useful thinking.


Source: VIA Institute on Character. For more complete definitions of these character strengths, or to learn more about other character strengths, go to www.viacharacter.org