The New York Times published an interesting commentary about research on positive thinking on 10-26-14. The author, Gabriele Oettingen, is a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Her commentary, “The Problem With Positive Thinking,” reviews are cultural patterns and myths about positive thinking, and what research actually tells us about this common coping patterns. It turns out that the actual research about it finds it to be strikingly unhelpful. She cites several research examples in support of this. Her take: it feels good in the short run, but saps the energy and probably distracts the person from the focus needed to make actual, real world changes.

Dr. Oettingen writes, “Positive thinking fools are my receiving that we’ve already attained our goal, his liking our readiness to pursue it.” 

She goes on to also critique people who recommend the opposite approach, such as those who advise us to discard all “happy talk” and to face the real world more directly by dwelling on the challenges or other problems that we are facing. Her take on this approach:”… this is too extreme of a correction. Studies of show that the strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies.”

So what does she recommend? She and her colleagues have developed a fairly simple process, which they call “mental contrasting,” which has produced interesting results in their experiments. She describes it in her commentary: “here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes managing the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.” She goes on in her commentary article to describe research using mental contrasting to help people with problems ranging from increasing their intake of vegetables to coping more effectively with chronic back pain, and more.

She concludes, “positive thinking is pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forest jumping for joy.”

MHConcierge’s take: this relatively brief article provides some interesting guidance for psychologists and other mental health professionals who are helping people who need a better balance between positive and negative thinking. In my own practice, one of the most common challenges that I face thing with people who desperately hope to be able overcome their problems with “the power of positive thinking,” are finding, understandably, that it is not working very well, but have know what idea what to do to replace it.  

This article also could potentially be passed on to the people who see us to perhaps stimulate some discussion in future therapy appointments about the problems with positive thinking and the potential benefits of mental contrasting.


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