The Problem With Positive Thinking
November 15th, 2017
Negative thoughts are not your fault.
Opening up to friends and family about mental health issues can be extremely difficult and at times frustrating. There seems to be a growing body of thought that suggests you can heal yourself if only you learn to “think positively.” Did you wake up this morning and question whether or not it was worth even getting out of bed? Well, that’s your fault. You’re just not thinking positively. Were you late for class because you were racked with anxiety and couldn’t decide what to wear? That’s your fault too, according to advocates of positive thinking. If you had only maintained a positive mindset, you never would have questioned whether that sweater made it look like you were trying too hard. You wouldn’t have cared so much whether or not anybody would notice the little stain on your only half-decently-clean pair of pants.
Unfortunately, many people who are brave enough to open up about their mental health problems face ignorant sentiments such as these. For those who are in good mental health, positive thinking is easy. Some may even think that the reason they don’t suffer from mental health problems is that they have mastered the art of positive thinking. Some mentally healthy people seem to mistake symptoms for causes. In reality, depression, for example, does not stem from a conscious decision to think negatively; rather, depression can actually bar individuals from thinking positively. So simply telling someone they need to “cheer up,” or to not be so “pessimistic,” is kind of like telling someone with a broken leg not to be so “limpy.”
“Some mentally healthy people seem to mistake symptoms for causes.”
In an interview conducted by The Washington Post, Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David tells Neda Semnani that “There is evidence that people who value happiness, people who are focused on being happy, and who set happiness as a goal for themselves actually become less happy over time.” Further, she argues that by trying to push away negative emotions, what we are actually doing is magnifying them. Therefore happiness does not come from a conscious desire just to be happy, and believing so can actually have negative consequences.
But now it seems we have arrived at a dead end. It would seem that neither negative thinking nor positive thinking will lead us to any kind of happiness. However, when talking about an issue as complex as mental health, it shouldn’t be surprising that using such binary logic is unhelpful. Telling someone to “think positively” suggests that what they have been doing up to that point has been to “think negatively.” And while many of the emotions that go along with such issues as depression and anxiety could be lumped into a big category called “negative thoughts,” the reality is probably more nuanced. Some who suffer from anxiety may not be aware of their own patterns of thinking let alone how to change those patterns. Mental health is a complicated issue, and certainly what is not helpful are far-reaching suggestions for individuals to “brighten up” or to “change their mindset.” If you are not a doctor, you by no means have the right to prescribe treatment to people with mental health issues. If you want to help somebody suffering from their mental health, start by listening. Respect their emotions and do not imply that their suffering is by any means their own fault. If you really want to help, validate their emotions, don’t help them repress them, and never suggest that the half-baked advice from a blog article could stand in for advice from a trained medical professional.