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The Surprising Upside to Negative Thinking

We’re often told to look on the bright side, but for some of us negative thinking can have positive effects.

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Contributing Writer

It’s an age-old question: Do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty? Often, those who call it half-full are said to be optimists, positive people who smile easily and find the good in most situations. Those who view the glass as half-empty are thought of as pessimists, Negative Nellies who wear a frown on their face. But perhaps that frown doesn’t need fixing. Half-fullers aren’t as happy as we believe, plus they might be a little thirsty.

For decades, we’ve been told the antidote to cynicism is hopeful thinking. Smiling will make you feel better. Thinking confidently makes good things happen. Positive thinking or doing things to make us feel happier may have started with Victorian philosopher William James’ As If theory, that our actions, rather than our thinking, influence how we feel. One of the core ideas is that forcing a smile increases happiness, or at least makes you feel more positive, whereas most people see this in the reverse; I feel happy, so I’ll smile.

Not necessarily.

Positive psychology doesn’t work for everyone, especially those who are a tad pessimistic, say researchers and specialists. In fact, some unusual behavioral tweaks, not to mention creating anxiety-inducing situations, might actually improve your outlook.

Related: Understanding the Science Behind “Happy Crying”

“Telling yourself everything is great while trying to push out unconstructive thoughts or ideas paradoxically makes you think about those negative things even more,” says Julie Norem, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Wellesley College, and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “It’s called ironic processing and for a lot of us, the more you try not to think about something, the more you do.”

Another misconception: Positive thinking doesn’t allow us to be as prepared or to have a back-up plan, whereas planning for the worse case scenario does.

“Focusing only on the positive side leads to processing that can gloss over important details. If you concentrate only on a specific outcome, say getting hired for a job, you’re not thinking about how to get there,” adds Norem, using examples like researching the company, or thinking about what kinds of questions you might ask, or what your next option should be if you don’t get the job. She also cautions that too much positive thinking can make you feel as though you’re just pretending, and that too, will cause you to fall short. To prevent that from happening, here are four surprising tips to keep a realistically bright, if not sunny, outlook rather than just fashioning a pair of rose-colored glasses.

Try something scary. 
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who offered the helpful quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” It seems the 32nd First Lady knew what British author Oliver Burkeman set out to discover—trying something that gives you anxiety offers a positive result rather than a negative one. In his recent book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman got on a subway and before arriving at each stop, shouted out the stop’s name. “It was embarrassing and caused me a high level of anxiety,” Burkeman admits. “Thinking about doing it in advance was horrifying and excruciating. But in reality it’s kind of rational as you’re not doing anything illegal. It’s rather harmless. It could even be helpful to someone else.”

The original idea can be attributed to psychologist Albert Ellis, Ph.D., who uncovered that there were surprising benefits found within negative experiences. Ellis’ discovery was based on ancient philosophies from Stoic teachings, one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden. This school of thought was among the first to propose that happiness might be obtained from negativity. Stoicism practices and focuses on the development of self-control and resilience as a way of overcoming destructive emotions and behaviors. The goal of Stoicism is to achieve inner peace by overcoming difficulty, practicing self-control, being aware of one’s impulses.  This concept emphasized the fundamental importance of reason. “Negative experiences are part of life,” Burkeman says. “The experience wasn’t pleasant, but I tolerated it and that caused the anxiety to dissipate.”

Related: How Facing My Fear of Failure Changed My Worldview

Facing your fears can also bring peace of mind, which most people equate with happiness. Trying to contain your anxiety and realizing you can endure it gives you more control. “Confronting discomfort rather than avoiding it opens up your range of options, relationships, goals and work opportunities,” Burkeman says. “It enhances our life rather than diminishing it.” Try following in Burkeman’s footsteps. Each week, attempt one thing that scares you. “You can train your mind to expend your comfort zone,” he says. “If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not growing in a positive way. The larger your comfort zone, the greater chance you have of obtaining a more fulfilling life.”

Downsize your positivity. 
Experiencing love is indeed wonderful, but according to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, the feeling can be distracting and prevent you from focusing. “People who are too happy, smile too much, or are too positive can create some social consequences, including alienating others who might find them annoying and distracting, and thus reject them,” says Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does. Sometimes affirmations like “I’m smart” or “I’m attractive” don’t work because you’re trying too hard, she explains. “Monitoring your happiness can have the same backfiring effect. Like stepping on the scale several times a day…Your weight, your happiness and your mood go up and down.”

What should you do? Find what Lyubomirsky calls your optimal strategy level: A personal point or condition that focuses on how often you do something that will have a positive outcome. In a study she conducted, she found people who experienced gratitude once a week felt better than people who tried to be thankful three or more times a week. “If you try to be grateful too often it might become a chore or you could run out of things to be grateful for and that can make you feel worse,” she says. “If you’re trying to be positive too much, and it feels fake or makes you feel worse, it’s not the optimal dosage for you.”

Reside in realism. 
“People need to be realistic,” says legendary basketball coach Bob Knight, author of The Power of Negative Thinking.  “There are no genies in bottles. Problems exist. You can’t go around pretending that they don’t. You can’t leave them up to chance or hope for the best. Things will not get better on their own.” Knight likes to look for the possible negatives in any situation, as it’s a helpful way to bring about constructive results.

“Insecurity can have intangible benefits. Reviewing your mistakes is what makes you better,” he shares. “Being able to self-analyze and be self-critical is very important. Realizing your shortcomings takes awareness. Negative thinking can bring about better results when you recognize and then admit the fact that something isn’t working.” By recognizing, addressing, understanding, and removing the obstacles you can start to fix your situation or problem. Then look for answers or other ways to do something that will provide a better outcome.

Another Knight-ism? Be prepared, it beats repairing. “Just because you say it’s not going to rain doesn’t mean it won’t. Bring the raincoat,” he insists. “That way, if it does, you’re covered.” He’s also a big believer of the if…then. If you try this and that doesn’t work, then go to plan B. If that doesn’t work, then go to plan C. Other advice? “Ask for help. Ask Questions. And always worry,” he adds. “If you can’t think of a thing to be worried about, worry about being overconfident.”

Listen to downer music. 
Listening to disco at the office or Top 40 tunes while working on a project at home sounds like it would offer a positive experience rather than hamper your ability to digest information. But shockingly, cheerful music has the opposite effect.

“Hearing a sad song rather than a happy one can make you more productive, more focused, and allows you to pay closer attention to details,” Norem says. “Studies have found that melodic music and lyrics can increase our ability to focus and process information better than something uplifting.” Norem suggests choosing a slow tempo with minor keys as opposed to major keys paired with a fast tempo. Think Russian dirge vs. Lady Gaga. Lyrics that are sad and heavy can offer the same outcome.

Related: A Meditation on Music

“Certain moods are associated with different kinds of processing,” she says. “When we’re in a negative disposition, we’re more likely to acknowledge that something isn’t right. Because we’re more vigilant about what’s causing the problem, we’re more likely to catch a mistake.” The opposite happens when we’re in a positive place. Feeling like everything is fine, we fail to notice when something isn’t. This can be traced back to the idea of schematic processing, the way in which we organize patterns of thoughts or behaviors. For the positive person, it can also relate to a mental structure of preconceived ideas. “Working in a positive state of mind, a person is more likely to process information inaccurately, miss details, or fill in details that fit with what one might remember falsely,” Norem says, suggesting not proofing work if you’re in a good mood. “Instead, that’s when you should brainstorm for the next big idea.”



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