The Surprising Upside to Negative Thinking

The Surprising Upside to Negative Thinking
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We're often told to look on the bright side, but for some of us negative thinking can have positive effects.

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.

"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.

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