Bah, Humbug! Why positive thinking is overrated
Practising positivity isn't all it's cracked up to be - in fact, sometimes it's worth introducing a little pessimism into your life.
Cheer up, it’s Christmas! How many times has someone said that to you? If the answer is ‘a lot’, you’re not alone. It’s the time of year when we’re supposed to drop our slightly cynical view of life and embrace the warm, fuzzy glow of the festive period.
For the most famous curmudgeon of all, Ebenezer Scrooge, it took a few visits from ghostly spirits for him to adopt a more positive outlook towards Christmas, and life itself. Scrooge did, after all, live in a time before the self-help book.
But today you can hardly step in a book shop without spotting brightly coloured covers that promise our lives will be transformed if only we can embrace the positive us.
Internet memes, TV ads, pop music – they all carry the same message. Be positive. Reach for the stars. Focus on your dreams and they will come true. But a growing body of research is showing that being positive and an optimist is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Adopting a more pessimistic approach to life might actually mean you earn more, as well as being healthier and happier. In other words, there is a scientifically proven reason to say ‘bah, humbug!’
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One of the real dangers, it seems, in always being positive is that you just don’t get stuff done. As Dr Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg said in a talk at an international conference: “Dreamers are often not doers”.
It’s something she has evidenced through 20 years of research. “We have a whole line of findings showing that the more positively people fantasise or daydream into the future, the less well they do in trying to implement their desired future,” Oettingen tells us.
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Her research spans many facets of our lives. In one study, the more positive the dreams of those on weight-reduction programmes, the fewer pounds they shed. In another, university graduates who positively imagined an easy transition into work life ended up earning less money two years later than more pessimistic graduates. And people who positively fantasised about getting together with someone they fancied were less likely to be dating them six months later.
“So it seems that as pleasurable as these positive fantasies and daydreams are, and as good they are for exploring various possibilities in our futures, when it comes to implementing these wishes, they are actually really hurtful,” says Oettingen, who has written a book based on her research, Rethinking Positive Thinking.
“This is not only in the physical health domain, but also in psychological health. We find that the more people fantasise about a positive future, the less depressed they are at that moment but the more depressed they get over time.”
What Oettingen’s research shows is that when people are encouraged to daydream about something like landing a fantastic new job, or getting together with someone they have a crush on, they feel like they have already achieved their goal, so they relax. “These positive daydreams sap their energy and we need this energy to implement the dreams,” she says.
The solution is to give people what Oettingen calls ‘a healthy dose of reality’. This involves them identifying the obstacles that stand in their way and thinking about how they will overcome them.
There are parallels between what Oettingen has been finding, and research into the long-term dispositions of optimism and pessimism.
There’s no doubt that having a glass-half-full outlook on life can have its advantages. There are numerous studies showing that optimism can help with resilience when times are tough. It can affect how others perceive us too – influencing our powers of persuasion in our work life.
“The main way to convince someone to cooperate with you is to be able to convince them that you are a highly able person and the best way to do this is to really believe it yourself,” says Dr Chris Dawson, an economist at the University of Bath, who researches the influence of optimism and pessimism on career success. “If you’re optimistic you are more likely to do that.”
The benefits of defensive pessimism
But it’s really not as simple as optimism is good and pessimism is bad, like we’re often led to believe. The truth is that it depends on a lot of things – not least of which is who we are as a person.
Take, for example, those of us who have a tendency to be anxious; to worry about anything from an exam, to a sports competition or a job interview. What many anxious people do is intuitively adopt a technique that psychologists call ‘defensive pessimism’. They set low expectations for what might happen and ruminate over all the bad things that might crop up, thinking about what they would do if they did.
So in other words, just like Oettingen’s ‘healthy dose of reality’, defensive pessimists tend to think about the obstacles and then figure out solutions for them.
In research studies, defensive pessimists are often pitted against strategic optimists – those with a sunnier disposition who actively avoid reflection on what might happen. From arithmetic tests to dart-throwing competitions, the defensive pessimists perform just as well as the strategic optimists.
Where things really get interesting though is where researchers try to get the pessimists to be more optimistic, to relax and not think through what might happen. They don’t do nearly as well in the tests. It’s the same for the optimists too. Get them to think about all the bad things that might happen, and they don’t do as well either.
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Dr Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College in the US, carried out a study in which defensive pessimists were instructed not to consider what might go wrong in an activity. The researchers also calmed down the pessimists beforehand. They found that the pessimists got super-anxious when they performed the task and they didn’t do nearly as well.
“Once they [the defensive pessimists] start performing it, the anxiety comes flooding back,” says Norem. “So defensive pessimists are people who have high levels of anxiety and the strategy of breaking a situation down into small concrete pieces moderates those levels a bit. But they are still not calm; they can take that residual anxiety and use it as energy.”
In contrast, getting the strategic optimists to think about the bad things just makes them worry. “The risk for someone who is optimistic is that they will make themselves anxious in ways they don’t know how to handle,” says Norem.
That doesn’t mean though that each of us is completely inflexible in whether we are an optimist or pessimist at any given moment. It means that whether a more optimistic or pessimistic approach is best may depend on the task in hand.
“If you have got a group brainstorming situation, defensive pessimism isn’t going to be a big advantage because the point of brainstorming is you get all kinds of ideas on the table, regardless of whether they are good or not,” says Norem. “But then there is a next step where you choose which ideas you are going to implement and how you’ll implement them. Here defensive pessimism is probably going to excel.”
Having a head for business
Perhaps one of the most surprising demonstrations of the power of pessimism comes from the world of business – something that would have been close to Scrooge’s heart.
A study published in 2018 by researchers at the University of Bath, London School of Economics and Cardiff University showed that business owners with above-average levels of optimism earned 30 per cent less than pessimists.
For an economist, whether you are an optimist or a pessimist is all about whether you have ‘miscalibrated beliefs’. An optimist is someone who expects things are going to work out well in the future, when they won’t. A pessimist is someone who doesn’t expect things to work well in the future, when they will. Sitting between the optimists and pessimists are the realists, who tend to accurately predict how well things will work out.
This has consequences if you’re starting a business. “So with optimists, it tends to lead to too many starting out as entrepreneurs because they believe they have what it takes to be successful, the next Bill Gates or whatever,” says Dawson. “Optimists start projects that no one with any sort of realism would undertake.”
On the other hand, pessimists underestimate their ability and only pick the best projects. It’s because they only pick the best projects that they tend to earn more money, but it also means they miss out on getting involved with projects that would have worked out.
So how can those of us with an optimism bias learn from the pessimists among us? The good news is that, unless we’re highly optimistic or highly pessimistic, we have some flexibility in our mindset.
“There is some evidence that you are not doomed to have one perspective or another,” says Norem. “We find a lot of people use defensive pessimism in a particular aspect of their lives they are anxious about, but not their entire lives. So people might be defensive pessimists about their finances but they are optimistic and outgoing in their social lives.”
As for how to be more pessimistic if you’re an optimist, Norem has some tips. “If you’re not a defensive pessimist, you can get some of the advantages by recognising the risks of overconfidence and saying to yourself, maybe things will go well and that’s great. But it doesn’t cost me that much to stand back and spend some time thinking about what might go wrong. Or it’s probably easier to make friends with a defensive pessimist and have them help you walk through it.”
Now, it would be easy to think that shunning positivity, or dialling it back at least, would turn us into bad people. A bit of a Scrooge, you might say. But that’s not necessarily the case, says Oettingen – it all depends on what you wish for before you plan how you’ll overcome the obstacles.
“The wish does not need to be an individual wish for myself, it’s often geared towards taking on a responsibility for others,” says Oettingen. “It just needs to be a wish that’s dear to me, and the wish may be that I will support a relative, or I will help my friend, so it’s not that the wishes need to be self-centred.”
But when it comes to thinking about those wishes, let’s hope it doesn’t take a visit from some ghostly spirits to nudge us in the right direction.
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