Can Positive Thinking Backfire?

In this 4-part series, we look at new research that questions the power of positive thinking for certain personality types

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.” Wise words to tell yourself when you’re feeling depressed, right? Not for everyone, psychologists are finding.

Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley character, a fake self-help guru played by Al Franken in the ’90s, satirized the positive psychology movement that’s so pervasive in our culture today. Still, for all the mockery, thinking good thoughts seemed like a pretty logical way to help overcome self-doubts.

But two years ago, a widely reported Canadian study came out that questioned the effectiveness of positive self-statements, which had never been tested in an environment true to how many people use them: without the benefit of a therapist and other treatments. In the study, Joanne Wood, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and her colleagues looked at the effectiveness of positive self-statements (in this case, “I’m a lovable person”) on people with high and low self-esteem.

Volunteers with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating the statement or after focusing on how it was true compared to people who did not say the mantra or who thought about how it was both true and untrue.

Wood and her co-authors theorized in their paper that repeating sweeping positive self-statements such as “I’m lovable” makes people with low self-esteem think contradictory thoughts (“I’m not as lovable as I could be”). More important, focusing only on how true the statement is was difficult for these people, and it made them feel worse when contradictory thoughts persisted in breaking through.

The study was not a total indictment of positive thinking. Participants with high self-esteem benefited slightly from repeating “I’m lovable,” and from thinking about how it was true. The conclusion? “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most.” Next: Fighting Negative Thoughts? Thinking Positively? How Depressing! 

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