The power of negative thinking.
In 2006, Rhonda Byrne published “The Secret,” a self-help book detailing the law of attraction. The book became an instant hit, reaching the top of The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 146 weeks (about three years).
“The Secret” slowly morphed into a cultural phenomenon, infiltrating book clubs and pop culture, but nowhere was the book more ubiquitous than on my small liberal arts college campus. It was impossible to walk down the hall without spotting someone’s half-constructed vision board.
The ideas espoused in “The Secret” are simple: by envisioning success, you will attract success. It’s an appealing concept, especially for a broke college student graduating during the height of a recession. Why brave a blizzard to hand out resumés when you can stay inside and visualize yourself getting a job?
My obsession with positive thinking didn’t last long — it vanished right around the time I realized that visualizing paying my rent didn’t prevent my landlord from sending me passive aggressive emails. But many people never move beyond positive thinking — and therein lies the problem.
Positivity does not equal productivity
There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic, but psychologists have uncovered links between positive thinking and poor achievement. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicates that engaging in positive visualization techniques can lower a person’s energy and sap them of their drive to succeed.
In essence, when you see yourself achieving your goals, your brain reaches a place called “mental attainment” where it perceives you as having already accomplished that goal. And once your brain senses that the goal has been reached, it fails to provide you with the motivation to actually go out and achieve it.
To put it in coarser terms, your brain is cock-blocking you and inhibiting your success.
A little negativity goes a long way
The internet is full of literature about who is healthier and lives longer — optimists or pessimists. But like everything else, outlook is a binary and you don’t have to gravitate towards one extreme or the other.
Rather than labeling yourself a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” person, be the person who says “the glass exists — what are we going to do about it?” If you’re going to be any kind of -ist, be a pragmatist or a realist.
There’s a pervasive misconception that in order to be taken seriously, one needs to appear to be in control at all times. This can lead to a blind approach to optimism, where people proceed as if everything is normal when the world is slowly imploding around them.
It’s not a weakness to acknowledge that something is amiss — it’s far more dangerous and irresponsible to dismiss it without question. And unchecked positivity can do far more harm than good. Imagine a scenario in which a person came to you and admitted that they were struggling with depression and you told them everything was going to be all right. Not only would your flippant response diminish their concerns, it might also increase their sense of isolation.
So the next time someone tells you to “turn that frown upside down,” remind them that a frown, when paired with critical listening, thoughtful analysis and purposeful action can be far more productive than a smile and a nod.