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 it is 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?
Associate Professor Anthony Grant from the University of Sydney says the term “positive thinking” has been poorly defined and is 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 is the last thing we feel like doing.
But Associate Professor Grant warns that 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 said.
“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.”
One popular aspect of so-called positive thinking is the belief that whatever we think manifests in our lives, but Associate Professor Grant says that is “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.”
Psychologist Suzy Green, from The Positivity Institute, warns that seeing the world only through “rose-coloured glasses” can be dangerous. Dr Green says she is a proponent of “realistic optimism”, which she describes as “optimism with its eyes wide open”.
Anxious people, for example, tend to automatically focus on the negative or threatening aspects of a situation, but Associate Professor Grant says it is possible to change these thought patterns to refocus on things that make you happier.
Dr Green says research has shown optimistic and hopeful people 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,” she says.