Too Much Positive Thinking May Actually Make You Feel Worse

I've never been a fan of "positive thinking" for a number of reasons. It's estimated that 80% of people are unrealisic optimists! Jumping too quickly into "thinking positive" can sweep underlying issues important for our psychological well being under the rug. Thinking positive may also be just wishful thinking or fantasy which can actually be harmful to our success. And our western society's focus on positive thinking creates the belief that we should be happy all the time. But that's unrealistic and results in blaming the person for their psychological distress.   

Key Takeaway

Positive thinking may encourage unrealistic optimism that leads to more psychological distress and less psychological well-being than realistic thinking.

There are simple lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia and disability in later life. These include managing blood pressure controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight, quitting smoking, maintaining social relationships, and managing depression and hearing loss.

A recent study from the University of Bath has found that unrealistic optimism lowers our psychological wellbeing. To measure unrealisic optimism, the researchers compared yearly financial expectations of 1601 individuals from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and compared them with their following years' actual financial realizations over 18 years. Using this data, they were able to differentiate between long-term systemic psychological bias toward overly optimistic thinking and a transitory component that reflected random shocks to expectations.

To measure psychological distress and psychological wellbeing, the researchers used the results of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) and the life statisfaction question "“How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall? collected by the BHPS.  

The study found that realists - "those who exhibit long-run accuracy in forecasting their financial outcomes" - experienced higher long-run psychological well-being than the optimists. The psychological distress experienced by the unrealistic optimists was 11.8% higher and psychological well-being was 13.5% lower than for the realists. 

Pessimists don't fare well either compared to realists. Their psychological distress was 37.2% higher and psychological well-being 21.8% lower than that of the realists!

"Plans based on inaccurate beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would rational, realistic beliefs, leading to lower well-being for both optimists and pessimists," says co-author Dr. Chris Dawson.

So what should you do instead?

Use the Woop: Identify your goals and the outcome you want, identify the obstacles you are likely to encounter along the way, and make a plan for what to do when you encouter these obstacles. It's not sexy, but it's backed by science. And it works.


Meza, D. de, & Dawson, C. (2020). Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 146167220934577.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Related posts:

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get ten neuroscience strategies to work with your clients' brains


Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software