Blog Short #16: Is positive thinking a good thing?
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
The term “positive thinking” has become so mainstream that you hear it everywhere – on social media, in meetings at work, from your friends, at the gym, on TV, and in the grocery store.
You might even have had the experience of feeling pressured to say something in a positive manner, or squash that negative feeling you’re having before you speak.
Today I want to talk about what it really means, what it doesn’t mean, and when it’s actually helpful. Let’s start with the good. Most of what I’m listing here comes from positive psychology. (See Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.)
Focus on Strengths and Virtues
Positive thinking is both an attitude and an approach. It’s based on working from our strengths instead of deficits, and engaging in activities that embrace our virtues and build character.
Virtues include things like kindness, altruism, empathy, connection, authenticity, conscience, and responsibility. These are foundational aspects of character.
Strengths include things like the capacity to love, ability to think critically, open-mindedness, love of learning, sense of purpose, future-mindedness, curiosity, and leadership.
Positive psychology focuses on growth by helping someone to recognize and use their personal strengths and virtues, while continually working to sharpen them.
What differentiates positive psychology from other approaches is that it doesn’t work from the disease model which focuses on what’s wrong, and then goes about fixing it. It starts with what’s right and builds on that. It focuses on personal assets rather than personal dysfunctions.
True positive thinkers also make use of adversity. They don’t expect everything to be easy, or expect to avoid challenges and problems.
They embrace the value of these experiences and see them as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. They view obstacles as both temporary and as part of the natural unfolding and evolution of life that can be used for problem-solving and personal growth.
The objectives of positive psychology are:
- To actively build your character through the practice of virtues and the exercise of your personal strengths.
- To face adversity and use it to evolve, learn and grow.
- To know that all circumstances are temporary, and that situations that are difficult and painful pass.
- To approach life with a sense of purpose, gratitude, appreciation, compassion and connection.
- To have faith in your ability to overcome obstacles.
- To pay attention to the beauty in the world.
- To be both flexible and present, with hope for the future.
The benefits are:
- Slows aging and promotes a longer life span.
- Associated with a stronger immune system.
- Reduces stress and keeps your heart healthier, especially when used with meditative practices and gratitude.
- Reduces depression.
- Enhances social connection.
- Increases productivity, and creates more positive work environments.
- Longer and better marriages.
- More resilience under stressful situations.
- Better able to make decisions, both everyday decisions and those made under pressure.
Sometimes positive thinkers misuse or misinterpret this approach to avoid recognizing and dealing with adversity, such as:
– not paying attention to a chronic medical problem that needs treatment,
– or not confronting a relationship issue that if ignored will eventually cause a permanent rift,
– or not looking at your finances until you have no money left and no means to pay your bills.
Positive thinking should not be used to pretend things are fine when they’re not. It also should not be interchanged with wishful or magical thinking. When people use the phrase “Just think positive!” to avoid dealing with a problem, they’ve moved into the realm of magical thinking. “If I think it, it is.”
Emotional Denial and Suppression
Positive thinking is also used sometimes to suppress real emotions that are negative in nature. We have both positive and negative emotions. You can’t have one without the other, and each serves a purpose, and each is a natural expression or reaction to an experience.
Life is fraught with loss which precedes growth and rebirth. Negative emotions are a part of this process.
Suppressing them, or pretending they’re not there, is a real problem, because they don’t go away. They just go underground and surface in some other form later, often snowballing. The problem is that when you suppress or deny your negative feelings, you lose control over how they manifest. Often you’re not even aware of the connection between what you suppressed and what later comes about.
Suppression keeps you stuck and prevents you from working through emotional issues and dysfunctional behavior patterns.
More importantly, negative emotions are not “bad!” They serve a purpose, and used correctly can initiate and encourage growth.
They’re a part of learning the lessons and making the necessary transitions that come from the experience of adversity and loss.
A good positive thinker will allow her negative emotions to surface, allow herself to feel them, and give them the time they need to be fully expressed. Only then can she make use of them for learning and growth. That’s working from your strengths. Emotional suppression is not a strength. It’s avoidance.
Sometimes we need to see what’s wrong.
It’s true that if we’re only working from the disease model (what’s wrong), we may not notice what’s going well, and make use of our strengths to help us push forward.
By the same token, sometimes we have to attend to what’s wrong because it’s hanging us up. We need to recognize dysfunctional patterns that are impeding our progress, and are in need of correction and healing. This is the work of psychodynamic therapy.
Optimally, both positive psychology (using our strengths to grow) and psychodynamic therapy (correcting our dysfunctions through insight) can be used together for the best outcomes.
Positive thinking is a good thing if not used to avoid issues, or suppress negative emotions, or ignore dysfunctional emotional patterns that stem from early experiences in your family of origin, or from trauma.
Positive thinking does help you build your character and take advantage of your strengths. It does power you forward to overcome obstacles. It does increase your faith in yourself, as well as your appreciation and gratitude for what you have right now – but, only if you use it correctly. So do that, and you’ll reap the benefits.
A note: If you’re interested in knowing more about this subject, go to www.authentichappiness.org. You’ll find resources you can use, as well as some questionnaires you can fill out to gauge your personal strengths. I took the VIA Survey of Character Strengths which was helpful and interesting. It’s long – 240 multiple choice questions – but it gives you a lot of information and it’s free. You do have to create a login for yourself. There are many other questionnaires on the site besides this one that might interest you.
That’s all for this week! Hope you have a “positive” week:)
All my best,