Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.
Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.
So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?
And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”
Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.
Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:
Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.
No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.
I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.
“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.
“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.
I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.
Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.
not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.
I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”
I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.
There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.
A few said it does:
Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.
In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.
The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:
It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.
Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.
It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”
It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck
Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.
Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.
Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!”
Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.
These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:
1. Mental Illness
One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’t. So, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.
Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.
It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.
In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.
Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:
- “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
- “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
- “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
- “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
- “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”
Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.
And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.