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Mar 14 2013

Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

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!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

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’tSo, 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.

2. Proof

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.

3. Closeness

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.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Andrew B.

    I would also recommend joining a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills group, preferably to augment one’s existing treatment (medication, ECT, etc.). They often require a 6 month – 1 year commitment, however.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Also, expensive. :(

      1. 1.1.1
        Alethea Kuiper-Belt

        Check out Ashley & Kate’s blog for some good online resources. MoodGym is totally free online CBT.

        1. 1.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          I helped Kate with that! :)

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    You might find Barbara Ehrenreich‘s book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, worth reading.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I have. One of my favorites. :)

  3. 3
    Anthroslug

    I have a particular anxiety disorder that leads to me worrying incessantly about things that I know are irrational. I finally got some actual help in my mid-20s and was able to learn to live quite successfully with it (to the point that even people who are close to me are surprised when informed or reminded that I have this disorder), but prior to that the most common thing I was told by both friends and medical professionals was that I needed to “just not worry about X” with X being whatever irrational thing that I was worrying about. I consider “just don’t worry about it” to be a close cousin to “think positively!”

    I remember trying to convey to people that I literally did not know how to stop worrying (I have since figured out ways to stop, or at least, minimize it…but even these methods tend to seem very, very strange to everyone to whom I explain my methods), and people routinely just blew me off and made some comment about how I wasn’t trying, or some such thing.

  4. 4
    Onamission5

    What someone says:
    Think positive!

    What I hear:
    Stop talking now. Your problems are invalid and I wish to police your emotions to make myself more comfortable around you.

    What someone says:
    Look on the bright side!

    What I hear:
    Smile! Whether you have anything to be happy about or not! Because I don’t like frowns and it’s all about me!

    Sometimes I just need someone to say, Yeah, that totally does sound like it sucks. I hear you. Is there anything I can do besides listen? No? Okay, I am here for you if that changes and I am here for you even if it doesn’t.

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Sometimes I just need someone to say, Yeah, that totally does sound like it sucks. I hear you. Is there anything I can do besides listen? No? Okay, I am here for you if that changes and I am here for you even if it doesn’t.

      Something I’ve encountered is that a LOT of people really believe that saying something like this makes people feel worse. Like, they think that agreeing that someone’s situation really does sound kinda sucky will make them be like “Oh WOW it really IS bad then I’m gonna be even more sad.” Which doesn’t really make sense, because we have feelings whether people agree with us about them or not, you know?

      I’ve told people before that if they’d like to help me when I’m feeling down, they should say something like this rather than trying to rattle off all the reasons I should be happy instead, and they’re always like, “Really? That wouldn’t make you feel even worse?” No…

  5. 5
    Onamission5

    Talkey today…

    Something my spouse took a while to understand, I absolutely can solve my own problems most of the time, and I really am a quite rational person who makes well reasoned decisions. It’s just that the way my brain works I have to directly confront the Worst Thing before I can haul myself back to the Reasonable Thing or the Most Likely Thing. I have to know what the worst looks like, have a plan or at least a sense of how I might handle it, before I can work with what is known, what’s actually going on. Because sometimes the worst happens and I’d rather not be blindsided. Because if the worst doesn’t happen, then I get to have relief about it. Because if I don’t express those fears out loud, they will eat me, so when someone dismisses my worries (which granted are sometimes other than perfectly rational but always within the realm of possibility) with an edict to find silver linings, they are, essentially, denying me my emotional agency in my particular process of working shit through on my own, and trying to claim control over my process because it’s making them uncomfortable. Which isn’t cool. Yes, I probably know it’s “not that bad.” I still need to acknowledge that “that bad” exists in order to– which I will, every time– come to the conclusion that it’s not that bad on my own. I am not Negative Nellie, always perseverating on the worst and never looking for the good in things, but I am also not Mary Fucking Sunshine who refuses to ever see the underbelly and thinks everything will always be fine even with ample evidence to the contrary.

    short onamission5: it’s not always that bad, but it could be, and sometimes it is, and recognizing that out loud is part of my problem solving process, so stop trying to fix me.

  6. 6
    researchtobedone

    Totally agree. Also, my thoughts. Changing perspective is one of many tools, sometimes useful, sometimes not. You don’t always tell someone, “Just try having a positive perspective,” for the same reason you don’t tell someone with a broken table, “Why don’t you just use a hammer?” when you don’t know what kind of table it is or how it broke.

  7. 7
    Deoridhe

    In my experience, both personally and in my job (which is as a Case Manager/Therapist), “think positive” is useless to me. In the cases where I deal with depression, for example, it can be worse than useless because I become another think to drown out and ignore, instead of someone to confide in and trust. The closest I get to “think positive” is reframing (e.g. “I know it seems like only leaving your home twice this week isn’t “enough,” but remember last month, when you didn’t leave the entire month? You’re making progress; lets celebrate that.”). I actually spend a lot of time telling people to not “should” on themselves, and I think the should of “think positive” is particularly pernicious because it doesn’t even allow you the freedom of your mind.

  8. 8
    Aliasalpha

    Ahh “Think Positive”… its always a fun thing to hear when I’m in a down phase. In a way, it’s not much different from when I’m in a major depression and someone says “Cheer Up” or when I’m feeling even more self hatey than usual about being fat & someone random shouts out “Lose weight”. In all 3 situations I end up wondering where I put my rusty old claw hammer (because I don’t want my nice shiny one to get all stained with the blood of arseholes)

  9. 9
    Robert B.

    Yeah, giving me reasons to not feel so bad works adequately. Giving me advice for how to make myself not feel so bad works well. Giving me fluoxetine works very well.

    Just telling me to cheer up or think positive makes me feel either guilty or angry, depending on the day and who says it.

  10. 10
    Shari

    interesting post! (referred here via a link from Stephanie Zvan :-)

    I am HEINOUSLY optimistic. So, when that shiny (painfully, sometimes!) part of my personality starts laying low, i gear up for some persistent but low-level (thankfully) depression. When I am talking with friends or family who are down, and they are suffering the ‘tunnel effect’ – you can’t see the bright side because the stuff stressing you is so overwhelming -I don’t bother with telling them to ‘think positive’ – it’s dismissive and unfair, for starters.

    What I do, after listening first, is point out positive points that have as much ‘weight’ as what they are worried about. It doesn’t make their burden smaller, but it’s something I do to remind them of the ‘big picture’. Stress and depression just magnify the hell out of the real problems we have, to the point that things look insurmountable, which clearly doesn’t help. If real problems are the only thing you are seeing, you are exhausting yourself. If someone reminds you that that problem is not YOU, And NOT the only part of your life worth thinking about, it can help with perspective.

    Or, it might make you want to smack the person asking you to reframe it. I get pretty obsessive, and when my husband points out the ‘balance’ factor, I can be more objective. I don’t know if this helps, but it’s the viewpoint from someone who lives on both sides. Btw, it’s absolutely something that i feel has to be in context. The comment section here is thoughtful, and I appreciate seeing these viewpoints. The intent of helping someone feel better doesn’t fly far if your actions are ultimately hurtful!

  11. 11
    bbbettbu

    Whoa! I needed to hear the first comments. I have been through hell in the last 10 years and people who tell me to be positive don’t really know me because they don’t ask to go out for coffee or do anything that would take a real effort. They’d rather say something useless and something that makes me feel bad about myself. Like, I’m not doing things right or well. It’s really, really annoying and really unhelpful. Some people live on the surface, some people are extroverted. Some people are deeper and more sensitive or introverted. This positive thing is just another way of trying to make people fit into the same round hole and our society seems to like doing that because we like people to be the same. But being the same or acting fake positive to please others it’s not a good thing. It’s not even a positive thing to do.

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