Science of Life
Positivity, having a positive and optimistic attitude towards life, has long been considered to be a very good thing and is widely recommended in popular psychology. Innumerable books have been published over the past several decades promoting the value of positivity and positive self-esteem, eg. the classic The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (Prentice Hall, New York, 2012 – reprint), originally written in 1952.
However, it is now recognised that, although positivity is generally good, in certain common circumstances positivity is either an inappropriate or an unwise attitude to adopt. This is explained by Kate Sweeney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, in the February 2017 issue of The Psychologist.
However, Sweeny is at pains to emphasise the many benefits that flow from having a generally positive and optimistic outlook on life. People with positive attitudes tend to be more resilient, open-minded, creative, connected to others, healthier, more active, more productive, happier and better at making friends.
For example, people who are optimistic about their performance on an upcoming task also tend to persevere better when the task proves to be more difficult than anticipated. On the other hand, having an attitude of resignation can be bad. For example, Sweeny reminds us that people who contracted AIDS in the 1990s and who responded with a positive outlook, survived twice as long as those who adopted a resigned coping strategy called ‘realistic acceptance’.
Positivity ignores our natural psychological flexibility, our ability to access and pick from the entire spectrum of our emotional responses when we need them most. This psychological flexibility model rejects the notion that we should always strive for more positivity and promotes the idea that all our emotions serve us in some way and we should groom our understanding of when best to use optimism and when best to use pessimism.
But, of course, positivity has a lot going for it, as Sweeny emphasises, so, the trick is to recognise the situations where positivity is not the optimum response.
When deployed inappropriately, positivity can inhibit us from making sensible preparations while awaiting important news that could turn out to be either good or bad. It could also deflect us from taking up new healthy lifestyle habits, minimise our effectiveness to be helpful in relationships, and even threaten good mental health.
One example of a situation where uninhibited positivity is unwise is when are you are awaiting the outcome of an important job or promotion interview. It is sensible in most such cases to soberly temper your expectations and even to consider worst-case scenarios.
To get bad news in these situations is disappointing enough, but to get unexpected bad news is a real pain in the behind. On the other hand, if you have sensibly tempered your expectations a bad result is not nearly so devastating as it would be had you been confidently expecting good news, while a good result is extra pleasurable.
Another important exception to the general rule that positivity is the best policy is motivating oneself to adopt habits that will protect/enhance ones health, where negativity appears to provide a more powerful incentive to action.
Being concerned about your health spurs you to seek out information, to engage in healthy behaviours, to quit unhealthy habits and to seek medical or psychological advice more often. Sweeny quotes good evidence supporting this point from studies of how women deal with the possibility of contracting breast cancer.
Women who report worrying about breast cancer are much more likely to keep up-to-date with their mammography screening schedule. So, inappropriate application of the ‘think positive’ approach can undermine motivation to work hard to protect long-term health.
Again unbridled positivity is not good for the health of long-term relationships. Marriages tend to last longer when spouses have realistic appreciations of each other’s characteristics.
When this is the case they tend to support each other better when arguments and disagreements arise. And having realistic expectations of the other is particularly important in marriages afflicted with severe problems.
Neither is pronounced positivity helpful when trying to support a friend who is experiencing hard times. The recipient of this help (typically – “Everything will be okay. Stop worrying and cheer up.”) often finds such advice insensitive or dismissive. And consistently positive people are particularly prone to make this mistake because research has shown that such people are markedly poor at appreciating when others are feeling low.
On the contrary, consistently positive people feel they are particularly good at understanding how others are feeling.
While positivity is generally good, extreme positivity can be quite harmful. Specifically, Sweeny points out that extreme positivity is a marker for mania. Research has shown that those who are consistently extremely happy tend to engage in more risky behaviour, to be less creative and are at a greater risk of mental illness.
Finally, Sweeny warns of the futility of actively pursuing happiness. Some people place more value on achieving happiness than others. If you strive hard to achieve happiness and fail you risk becoming even more miserable than less happiness-obsessed people who find themselves on an unhappy road.
Happiness is the by-product of a well-lived life and is best stumbled-upon while living that life rather than actively chased down.
William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.