The power of positive thinking is deeply ingrained in our society. Platoons of self-help writers and life coaches encourage us to believe that an upbeat attitude is the surest path to a happy, healthy, successful life…and that negative feelings are merely obstacles to overcome.
Reality: Decades of research suggests that the truth is more nuanced. While extreme negativity, including clinical depression, can indeed dramatically interfere with people’s lives, everyday negative feelings such as anxiety, regret and anger actually can be beneficial. That doesn’t mean that negativity is better than positivity, but rather that each of these mental states plays a useful role.
People who are prone to negativity need not fear that this undermines their odds of success…and people whose natural inclination is positivity might—on specific occasions—benefit from shifting their mood toward negativity.
Does negativity stand in the way of success…or encourage it? When Finnish psychologists tracked the academic careers of college students for a study published in Learning and Instruction, they discovered that optimistic students experienced high levels of academic satisfaction and well-being…but “defensive pessimists”— students who foresaw problems and had low expectations for themselves—achieved greater academic success.
Anxiety and fear of failure aren’t pleasant feelings, but they exist for a reason—they warn us about what could go wrong. Those warnings leave us better prepared to cope with problems when they arise and more likely to find ways to avoid problems before they occur.
Negativity reduces the odds that we’ll fall for scams, too. Sad people are significantly better at detecting deception than are happy or emotionally neutral people, according to research by Australian psychologists at University of New South Wales and published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
The main takeaway from hundreds of studies isn’t that people think better when they’re feeling negative…it’s that they think differently. When people feel positive, they focus on the forest, not the trees. When they feel negative, they’re all about those trees. Each of those viewpoints is beneficial at different times.
Example: If you’re trying to generate ideas during a brainstorming session, a positive mood and focus-on-the-forest mindset will serve you well…but when you’re trying to spot potential flaws in a particular idea, negative feelings and a focus-on-the-trees mindset is preferable.
This helps explain why happy, positive people are more likely to fall for scams—they focus on the big picture that the scammer is peddling and overlook key details that the scammer is glossing over.
What to do: If you’re in a negative mood but you absolutely must do big-picture thinking—or you’re in a positive mood but must evaluate ideas critically—try to shift moods and mindsets. Music is a wonderful tool for this—listening to happy or sad songs truly can alter moods. Exercising also is a proven way to boost mood. Caution: Do not attempt to change your mood by reflecting on the joys or sorrows of your own life—that can lead to emotions that spiral out of control.
When a task does not call for positivity, the best way for you to maximize your performance is to embrace your negative feelings. Example: When researchers asked people to play darts after listening to one of three recordings—a recording about dart-throwing mistakes…one about perfect dart throws…or one about relaxation techniques—the participants who already were feeling pessimistic scored highest after listening to the recording about dart-throwing mistakes. Reason: Anxious people benefit from reflecting about the specific things that might go wrong and what they could do to prevent those things.
If you’re wondering, the optimistic dart throwers in the study fared best after listening to the relaxation recording…and none of the groups excelled after listening to the positive recording about perfect dart-throwing.
If there’s one thing that the positivity crowd seems positive about it’s that negativity is a killer. And there is some evidence on their side—multiple studies have suggested a link between negative feelings such as anxiety and life-threatening health issues like heart disease and weakened immune function. But German researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg with DIW Berlin and Humboldt University of Berlin discovered something surprising when they examined this perceived link between positivity and longevity for a study in Psychology and Aging—older people who were pessimistic about their future were less likely than optimists to experience disability or death during the ensuing decade. Their negativity likely improved their ability to identify and avoid risks. And studies have shown that pessimists were more likely to take useful safety precautions during the SARS outbreak and, more recently, during the COVID pandemic.
There is reason to question whether adopting a more positive attitude actually boosts immune system function or reduces the odds of developing heart disease. When Australian researchers at Queensland Institute of Medical Research and University of Queensland examined the health of aging twins for a study published in Behavior Genetics, they found that optimism and good health might be linked not because optimism causes good health, but because the same genetic factors that make people prone to optimism also make them less likely to have certain serious health issues.
What to do: If you’re a worrier, there’s one worry you can cross off your list—worrying probably isn’t shortening your life. But it might extend it by calling your attention to a danger that an optimistic person might overlook.
Among the concerns voiced about negativity—no one wants to listen to it. Negative people often are regarded as unpleasant, and their viewpoints can be seen as defeatist.
Rationally, a negative viewpoint is a valuable counterbalance for a group of positive-minded people…but realistically, negative people should proceed with caution to avoid damaging their relationships and careers.
What to do: Before saying something negative, consider whether it’s worth saying anything at all. Of course, it’s worth speaking up if you believe someone is headed toward a potentially catastrophic mistake…but if the downside seems minimal and the decision isn’t your responsibility, your best move might be to keep your thoughts to yourself.
When you voice negative thoughts to a group that has a pronounced positive bias, frame your concerns as a step to achieving the outcome everyone else desires. Example: You see flaws in a plan that a group appears on track to adopt—but this group views you as negative. Before citing the plan’s flaws, say, “You all know the way I think…I need to work through what could go wrong before I can be positive about a plan. Here’s what caught my attention with this one…”
Identifying the potential for problems can be beneficial…but seeing catastrophe around every corner is not. Everything-is-going-wrong-and-there’s-nothing-we-can-do-to-fix-it negativity spirals are unproductive and extremely unpleasant. Good news: For most people, these spirals can be avoided. A behavioral therapist can provide strategies for avoiding them, but there also are techniques that people prone to such spirals can try on their own.
What to do: Force yourself to be focused with your negative thinking. When you’re worrying about something, remind yourself that you are worrying about only this specific thing. Have an action at the ready to intercept unrelated worries when they come to mind. Example: Wear a rubber band on your wrist, and snap it when unrelated worries creep in—the sharp feeling can snap the mind to attention, allowing you to return to the issue at hand.
Also: Enlist “accountability buddies.” Ask trusted friends and loved ones to steer you out of your negativity spirals when they occur. Instruct them to ask you questions that bring your focus to the matter at hand and/or encourage you to evaluate your actual risks, such as, “How likely is that?” or “But what does that have to do with the problem you’re trying to solve right now?” These people’s instinct likely will be to provide reassurance, but hearing things like “everything will be okay” doesn’t actually help people who are caught in negativity spirals.