How often have you been told to “look on the bright side” or “focus on the good things” when times are tough?
It can feel as though every self-help book, TV show and family member wants you to stop feeling sad, angry or depressed, and find the silver lining in every difficult situation.
Proponents of positive thinking would have us believe that it’s one of the best ways to boost self-esteem, find happiness and even prevent some mental illnesses, such as depression.
But just how effective is it?
According to coaching psychologist Associate Professor Anthony Grant, the term “positive thinking” is poorly defined and often misunderstood.
For many people it means saying daily affirmations, focusing on the good in every situation and putting on a happy face, even when it’s the last thing we feel like doing.
But Grant warns trying to be permanently optimistic about life is highly unrealistic and generally makes you worse off in the long run.
“It just doesn’t work. When people don’t allow themselves to think about problems or sadness or any other emotion apart from happiness, it’s not helpful at all,” he explains.
“In difficult periods in your life, you need to allow yourself to grieve and have a whole range of emotions, because that’s part of the natural healing process.”
A 2009 study found positive self-statements only improve mood and wellbeing in people who already have high self-esteem. In people with low self-esteem it had the opposite effect.
“Essentially, they knew they were lying to themselves,” Grant says.
“So the paradox of positive thinking is that it works, but only for the people who don’t really need it.”
One popular aspect of so-called positive thinking is the belief that whatever we think manifests in our lives. However, Grant says, that’s “clearly not the case”.
“The notion that we create reality through our thinking is just wrong,” he says.
“The mindset we have and how we use our thinking capacity has a big impact on how we experience the world, but there are lots of things that happen that are completely outside our control.”
Positive psychologist Dr Suzy Green warns that seeing the world only through ‘rose-coloured glasses’ can be dangerous, especially in high-risk situations, such as severe illness, where you can potentially be in denial about the outcome and not seek the assistance you need.
“Realistic optimism”, on the other hand, is “optimism with its eyes wide open”, she says.
“It’s maintaining a realistic, optimistic, mindset in the face of challenges, whereby you’re drawing on your strengths and capacities and working through the situation more optimistically than pessimistically,” she explains.
“It would be saying to yourself, ‘Okay, these things could go wrong, but this is what I’ll do if that’s the case’.
“You’ll have a plan in place and start focusing on the evidence as to why things could turn out right rather than wrong.”
Green says it’s normal to have negative thoughts when you’re in challenging situations and outside of your comfort zone, and trying to deny these thoughts is unproductive.
“With realistic optimism it’s not that you don’t have those negative thoughts, you just don’t’ always buy into them and sometimes decide to think differently and more optimistically about the situation,” she says.
“You’re looking for evidence that you can achieve things or get through difficult times.”
Challenging your thoughts means monitoring them and asking yourself how helpful they are to you.
We all have automatic thought processes, otherwise known as attention bias, Grant explains. Anxious people, for example, automatically focus on the negative or threatening aspects of a situation.
Luckily, it’s possible to change these thought patterns to refocus on things that will make you happier.
“It’s not a case of switching your attention to the positive and just keeping it there, it’s being able to constructively reflect on your thinking style and knowing when to shift it,” he says.
Green says research has shown that people who are optimistic and hopeful are mentally and physically healthier.
“They have higher levels of goal attainment and general wellbeing, because they have a belief that there’s another way, so engage in activities that are helpful.”
However, Green cautions against practising optimism when the outlook for a specific situation is grim, because you don’t want to create false hope.
“In high-risk situations, it’s better to engage in defensive pessimism, which is where you look at the worst-case scenario but in a defensive way,” she explains.
“So you ask yourself, ‘How will I deal with it when it happens and what’s the process I’ll take along the way, given there’s a good chance this won’t turn out well?'”
Grant says setting meaningful goals and working towards them is one of the best ways to change your attention bias and improve mental health.
“Find out what sort of goal you want to achieve,” he says.
“Then ask yourself what sort of thoughts, feelings and behaviours you need to have in order for you to reach that goal. How would you structure or change your environment to reach that goal?
“That’s a much more useful way to think about your thinking than whether it’s positive or negative.”
He also recommends writing a list of everything you’re grateful for each day – even if those things are small.
“It’s just taking time at the end of the day to appreciate what you do have,” he explains.
“It’s not to say bad things won’t happen or you need to interpret every bad thing as a positive experience in some way.
“Writing about those experiences just helps people get more control over how they’re feeling.”
Associate Professor Anthony Grant is from the University of Sydney; Dr Suzy Green is from The Positivity Institute. They spoke to Cassie White.
This article first appeared on ABC on 30 June, 2014.