Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Positive Thinking Can Set You Up To Fail

There are limits to optimism

Heidi Grant Halvorson in her recent Psychology Today article made the bold statement, “Positive Thinking and vision boards can set you up to fail.” Susan Krauss Whitbourne also wrote about the trouble with optimism. Both rightly pointed out the faults of positive thinking and optimism if they were the only strategies being used. I’d agree with that. Positive thinking and optimism are tools. Used correctly they’re perfectly useful. A hammer is a tool. Use it for banging in nails and it’s perfectly useful too. Use a hammer for brushing your teeth and serious damage can ensue. It’s not the fault of the hammer…

Whitbourne refers to studies on optimists and pessimists in stressor situations and the different coping mechanisms employed. Two were ‘emotion-focused’ coping and ‘problem-focused’ coping. It’s not immediately helpful but I like the findings as they fit in nicely with my world view. There is no one best way of coping. It depends. Sometimes it’s best to focus on the emotion, looking on the bright side etc. Sometimes, it’s best on trying to solve the problem or minimise the damage. What it depends on is how much control you have over the situation at the time. If it’s beyond your control, focus on your emotions. If there’s still something you can do, make the effort.

Some useful tips were to be realistic, look out for the changeability in situations, find sources of social support and look after your immune system. I like the latter two especially as they require us to be prepared and work on our resources before we hit the inevitable stressor situations that life throws at us. Sometimes s**t happens. Even Victor Frankl back in the day identified that as a common trait among successful and resilient people – the belief that sometimes s**t happens and we deal with it and move on. People expecting life to constantly throw them a parade and sprinkle rose petals in front of them as they stroll are going to hit some speedbumps and some pretty serious disappointments in work and life.

It’s not that Halvorson is a raving fan of negativity. She stresses that the right kind of negative thought employed in a practical action-oriented way can move people towards goals. But it isn’t just done by the thinking of the thought. Focus is important as it does affect how our brains perceive what’s going on around us – even if it is just looking out for the luck and the opportunities that are always there. I’ve found even a physiological cross-over. One day I won the lowest prize on lotto – about $36. Nevertheless it put me in a good mood for a time, radiating a bit of positive thinking. Then I noticed that my ceiling corners needed the spiders webs cleaned out of them. Why? Because I was looking up! People in positive moods look up. I wonder if the reverse is true, that looking up can put a person into a more positive mood? Might go Google that now. (Having said all that, I have a few down times and I never then notice that my carpets need vacuuming…)

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