The Power Of Negative Thinking

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

Recently  someone sent me a blog post written by Christina Patterson in 2009.  In it, she takes some shots at the ‘Positive Thinking’ movement and cites research showing the advantages of negative mood on thought.  Critiques of the Positive Psychology movement – psychology’s antidote to focusing on mental illness – are not new.  We’ve known for a long time, for example, that ‘optimists’ are less realistic about life than ‘pessimists,’ that upbeat people truly do see the world through rose-colored glasses compared to people who are chronically mildly depressed.  And Barbara Ehrenreich delivered a scathing criticism of the movement and its founder, Martin Seligman, in her 2010 book  ‘Bright Sided: How Positive Psychology is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich makes the case that the ‘positive thinking’ movement is just another way to try to get people to be contented with a basically unfair political and economic system.

Politics aside, there are good reasons to resist the idea of a world full of optimistic, eternally cheerful people.  Reasons besides the fact that us more cynical types would never want to leave our houses.  Patterson reports the conclusions of the researchers:

Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, co-operation and reliance on mental shortcuts,” says a professor of psychology in this month’s Australian Science Journal, “negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.” People “in negative mood,” he concludes, can cope with more demanding situations than their sunny neighbours and are “less prone to judgmental errors, more resistant to eyewitness distortions and better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages.”

Sounds like a cognitive style that’s pretty useful, don’t you think?  Sure, we need those expansive, creative optimists.  But ‘attentive, careful thinking’ and  being ‘less prone to judgmental errors’ seems pretty important, too, as does being able to cope with demanding situations.

I developed a lasting dislike of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement after I lost my daughter Jesse in 2004.  My ‘recovery,’ if there is such a thing in situations like this, involved a transformation of my world view, which before that had been a little woo-woo New Age.   After Jesse’s death, I found people who tried to be upbeat  endlessly annoying.  There were, of course, the completely offensive “She’s in a better place” people.  Not much better were the people who assured me that her spirit was with me, beaming down on me.  My son Cory remarked of those comments: “If she does have a spirit, she’s really pissed that she’s not alive.  Her LIFE was a ‘better place.’”  And of course there were the ‘everything happens for a reason’ folks, to which I always wanted to say, “Yeah, but sometimes it’s a really random, unfair, stupid reason.”

I’d say now I’m definitely not a ‘positive thinker,’ but my outlook isn’t exactly negative, either.

I like to think of it as – neutral and more or less objective.

And isn’t that the idea?  Or at least, a do-able, sensible, realistic notion of how we might want to face life?  Not floating on a pink cloud, but not doom and gloom, either.

Really, what we’re striving for is the true definition of ‘mindfulness,’ that much abused and bandied about buzzword.  Here’s Sylvia Boorstein’s definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience…..

It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is,

without either clinging to it or rejecting it.

So the trick is – acceptance.  Sometimes life is great, sometimes it sucks, most times it’s in between.  And your own little triumphs and tragedies are not unique.  In the early days of grieving my daughter, I used to be comforted by the realization that mothers throughout history have lost their children, that indeed even today this is a rare occurrence only in First World countries like our own.  Somehow the perspective was useful, if only because I had to recognize that my own tragedy was not the center of the universe.

Genuine mindfulness and ‘positive thinking’ are worlds apart.  Happy-think promoters would have us see a silver lining in every cloud, indeed they encourage us to ignore the cloud and see only the silver lining.  Promoting true acceptance, on the other hand, involves our recognizing that life has clouds, and some of them are JUST clouds; acknowledging that bad things happen to good people, for no particular reason we can divine;   that life can be random, that luck factors in more than we like to admit, that we have little control over any of the really important things – our health, the fate of our loved ones, birth and death.  Acceptance – the kind that leads not only to keen awareness and observation of life, but also to inner balance – is not about ‘bright-siding’ the world, but acknowledging the bright, the dark, and everything in between.  You don’t have to like it – but you have to learn to live with it.


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