SCIENCE

Positive Thinking May Come With A Very Big Negative

Focusing on positive fantasies now may bring depression later.
New research ties positive thinking to higher risk for depression over the long term.
New research ties positive thinking to higher risk for depression over the long term.

So much for the power of positive thinking.

Surprising new research suggests that indulging in upbeat fantasies may exacerbate symptoms of depression in the long run, even if it gives a boost to one's mood in the here and now.

"It's not that positive thinking is bad, or that negative thinking is good," said Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and one of the scientists behind the research. "The idea is that we need to use positive thinking and fantasies in a way that is appropriate for what we want to use it for."

If your intent is to reach a goal that you associate with feeling happier or more fulfilled, Oettingen said, it's important to leaven your positive fantasies with realistic thinking about obstacles that stand between you and that goal.

For example, if you wish to repair a troubled relationship with a family member, it's probably best to think realistically about specific steps needed to turn that wish into a reality rather than simply to imagine how wonderful the repaired relationship will be.

Oettingen, who's also the author of the 2014 book Rethinking Positive Thinking, called this dual-thinking process mental contrasting. People who use it, she maintained, may be more likely to follow through on the steps required to overcome obstacles.

For the research, published online Jan. 29 in the journal Psychological Science, Oettingen and collaborators at the University of Hamburg in Germany and the University of Virginia conducted four related experiments involving a mix of adults and children.

In one experiment, the researchers asked 88 college students to imagine themselves in 12 open-ended scenarios. The students jotted down whatever thoughts and images came to mind and then rated these fantasies according to how positive they were.

Students who came up with more positive fantasies scored lower on a questionnaire used to gauge symptoms of depression. But when all of the students completed the same questionnaire one month later, those who had more positive fantasies scored higher for depression than did the students who had imagined less upbeat scenarios.

Similar results were seen in the other experiments.

The findings don't prove that positive fantasies cause future depression. But they do indicate that positive fantasies are a risk factor for a depressed mood over time. The conclusion is a stark contrast to the familiar admonition that, in order to lead a happy, successful life, we must maintain a steady stream of positive thoughts.

"The modern era is marked by a push for ever-positive thinking, and the self-help market fueled by a reliance on such positive thinking is $9.6-billion industry that continues to grow," Oettingen and her collaborators wrote in the conclusion to the paper. "Our findings raise questions of how costly this market may be for people's long-term well-being and for society as a whole."

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