Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work

The ability to always look on the bright side of life when times get tough, and, conversely, always expecting the worst, may actually be hardwired into the brain.

Said Jason Moser, lead investigator and assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University:

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers.”

The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, involved 71 female participants who were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. Participants were shown a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat, for example, and told one potential outcome was the woman breaking free and escaping.

Paradoxical Backfiring

The participants were surveyed beforehand to establish who tended to think positively and who thought negatively or worried. The brain reading of the positive thinkers was much less active than that of the worriers during the experiment.

“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions,” Moser says. “This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

The study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems. Previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results, researchers say.

“A lot of things are inherent in life -change, birth, death, aging, illness, accidents, calamities, and losses of all kinds- but these events don’t have to be the cause of ongoing suffering. Yes, these events cause grief and sadness, but grief and sadness pass, like everything else, and are replaced with other experiences. The ego, however, clings to negative thoughts and feelings and, as a result, magnifies, intensifies, and sustains those emotions while the ego overlooks the subtle feelings of joy, gratitude, excitement, adventure, love, and peace that come from Essence. If we dwelt on these positive states as much as we generally dwell on our negative thoughts and painful emotions, our lives would be transformed.” ~ Gina Lake, What About Now?: Reminders for Being in the Moment

The findings have implications for the ways negative thinkers handle difficult situations.

“You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry — that’s probably not going to help them,” he says. “So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

Negative thinkers could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference.

Reference:

Neural markers of positive reappraisal and their associations with trait reappraisal and worry.
Moser, Jason S.; Hartwig, Rachel; Moran, Tim P.; Jendrusina, Alexander A.; Kross, Ethan
Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 123(1), Feb 2014, 91-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035817