Why ‘thinking positive’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be


https://www.smh.com.au-By Evelyn Lewin

For most of her life, Jenny had adopted an unwaveringly positive attitude to things. Whenever she felt down, the 42-year-old would tell herself she should feel grateful for all that she had. As a low-income earner, Jenny often struggled to pay her bills. Instead of acknowledging how hard that was, she’d remind herself other people had it worse. But maintaining such a rosy outlook took its toll. “Trying to stay positive is mentally draining, but it’s also mentally draining when you get stuck in a rut and tell yourself off for not thinking positive,” she says.

If we smother negative feelings beneath a blanket of positivity, we don’t allow ourselves to experience the normal range of human emotions – and we feel worse for it.Credit:iStock

Over the last couple of years, Jenny has moved away from her ever-shining positivity and begun embracing a more realistic attitude. Therapy has been key. “Mental health professionals are getting more realistic,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘Yes, you should be grateful and you should be mindful.’ But they’re also not saying, ‘If you think positive all the time, you will be positive all the time.’ ”

Clinical psychologist Kirstin Bouse from Perth Psychology Collective is glad to hear that Jenny’s mindset has shifted. Bouse says being optimistic has benefits, such as breeding hope. But upholding relentless positivity in the face of challenges can be detrimental, even toxic. “If you’re going through a tricky time, trying to continually say ‘It’ll be okay’ or ‘Life is wonderful’ is invalidating,” she says.

If we smother negative feelings beneath a blanket of positivity, we don’t allow ourselves to experience the normal range of human emotions – and we feel worse for it.

“Generally, we have a range of feelings in most situations, and to focus on only one isn’t realistic,” says Bouse. “Allow them all to be there, even if they seem contradictory.”

Becoming a realist can also help you manage your issues more effectively, adds Bouse. If you acknowledge that things might not turn out as hoped, you’re more likely to take action to try to address your problems.

Research published in July backs the notion that being overly positive has its downsides. For the study, researchers from the University of Bath and the London School of Economics and Political Science studied 1600 people’s financial expectations in life, comparing them to actual outcomes over 18 years.

They investigated whether optimists, pessimists or realists had the “highest long-term wellbeing” by measuring self-reported life satisfaction and psychological distress alongside the participants’ actual finances and their tendency to either overestimate or underestimate them.

The researchers found that being optimistic about outcomes was associated with lower wellbeing, and realists fared best. “Being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of wellbeing, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity,” said researcher Dr Chris Dawson.

That’s not to say you should plunge yourself into negativity. Compared to realists, pessimists fared badly.

“You don’t have to be all doom and gloom,” says Bouse. “You can actually think, ‘I’m really grateful I’ve got good things in my life, but I also feel really crap this is happening.’ ”

Nowadays, Jenny feels much more content. She was recently made redundant from her administration job and credits being a realist with helping her get over the loss.

“Sometimes bad stuff happens,” she says. “And you have to accept that, sit with it, and then you can move on.”

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 27.



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