We’ve been sold on the idea of the power of positive thinking. From affirmations to optimism, if you want to succeed you must always look on the bright side.
But happy talk hasn’t always been so mainstream. When Norman Vincent Peale released his iconic book The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, it was considered controversial. Several mental health experts came out against Peale’s work, calling him a con man and a fraud because of his frequent use of unnamed experts and testimonials.
Over the years, many of the naysayers went away or even joined his campaign (search Amazon for books on "positive thinking" and more than 37,000 titles pop up.) But the pendulum may be swinging the other way; books and studies are surfacing that question our relentless pursuit of happiness.
Here are five examples that suggest "bad" thoughts can have good results:
In her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, Gabriele Oettingen reveals that "a cheery disposition and good attitude can zap the motivation needed to mobilize and strategize… dreaming isn't doing."
"The current literature has pushed us to embrace this idea of positive thinking so much that we shun anything negative, and obstacles by nature are a negative thing," she told The Atlantic in an article called "Optimism Is the Enemy of Action." "So, we tend not to consider negative concepts or ideas and instead focus only on the positive, which our research shows isn’t actually very helpful at all."
Oettingen says predicting obstacles is an important part of getting things done, but the key is not to dwell on them. "You want to integrate the obstacles into images of the desired future and then develop a plan that will help you circumvent or address the anticipated hurdles," she said.
In their book The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener provide an argument that negativity manifests itself in a range of characteristics beyond things like aggression, hostility, and being a jerk. It also encompasses things like critical thinking and caution, which heighten your senses and have the potential to improve your results.
"Negative emotions can help you focus on the situation at hand," they write in their book. "When you are about to drill a hole in the wall, chances are that you pay close attention to the measurements involved as well as to the position of your hand. The anxiety associated with the downside risk encourages you to drill in exactly the right spot."
One team member’s bad mood might improve a group’s results, according to Rebecca Mitchell, behavior expert and associate professor at the Newcastle Business School. In a recent study, Mitchell found that dispositions such as distress, irritation, upset, and hostility make other team members pay closer attention to their work.
"The most successful and innovative teams are the ones that have a leadership that creates a healthy balance between negative and positive emotions," she said. "If you have a team that focuses only on the positive then they just agree with each other and look for points that they share and not points of difference."
Mitchell says tension sparks better decisions because team members look for problems in their reasoning and then find evidence to support or reject their ideas.
In a study called "States of Mind Model," University of Pittsburgh researchers Robert Schwartz and Gregory Garamoni explored positive and negative thinking as it relates to anxiety, depression, and stress. While too much negative inner dialogue can bring about depression and panic, the pair found that a "golden section"—two-thirds positive and one-third negative—is the healthiest state of mind.
"Although increased positivity may be immediately reinforcing, in the long run threatening events may go unnoticed leaving the individual vulnerable to danger," they write.
Thinking about death could be considered the most negative of thoughts, but in a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers from Eastern Washington University and Hofstra University found that when participants visualized their own death using real-life scenarios, such as dying in an apartment fire, they better recognized their own mortality and increased their feelings of gratitude.
"Death reflection—focusing in a specific and vivid way on one’s death—significantly enhanced state gratitude compared to subjects that did not think about their own mortality," the report says. "When one is fully confronted with the reality that life ‘might not be’, life itself is seen as a limited resource that one is not entitled to, and thus appreciation for life increases."