Why We Love to Hate Positive Thinking

Written by on February 1, 2016 in Self-Care

Why We Love to Hate Positive Thinking

I admit it, I’m a “positive” thinker, but I see so many comments about the downside of positive thinking I decided to do a little research to see what I may be missing.

So over the past week, I slogged through a pile of studies, articles, and associated reader comments, and watched lectures and interviews on the pros and cons of positive thinking.

As a result, I can now fully understand why some people really do hate the concept.

Positive thinking is utterly self-obsessed and makes us forget that we are in a world where, all too often, horrible things happen.
~Jenni Murray

But hang on; I may not be going where you think because what I learned is the problem really isn’t positive thinking itself as much as it is a persistent misunderstanding about what it’s supposed to actually do for us.

Just Think Positive Thoughts – Everything Will Be Okay

I was working as a life and small business coach when the Secret first became popular and came across a LOT of people who had fallen into the trap of thinking that if they just stayed positive and believed hard enough, all their dreams would come true.

Worse, if those dreams didn’t materialize, it was their fault because they simply hadn’t believed hard enough.

But as many have learned the hard way, no matter how positive you may be, sometimes bad things happen to good people. You can think good thoughts all day long and still get rear-ended when you back out of your parking spot.

That doesn’t mean you failed Positive Thinking 101, it is just life!

Positive thinking isn’t about being happy 24/7, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, denying your fears, masking your feelings or sticking your head in the sand and hoping that your problems will just go away.

It’s about tackling life’s challenges with a positive outlook.

There is a huge difference!

Many approach positive thinking as a form of bargaining in order to get what they want, but it doesn’t work that way.

In fact, if you look at research on positive psychology the studies clearly advocate the value of being more “realistic” at times and learning from our experiences, particularly when it comes to problem-solving.

It might help to consider positive thinking as a way of using your thoughts to help you muster the energy and confidence to move forward rather than becoming mired in feelings of hopelessness and negativity, which only serves to keep you trapped and discouraged.

Just because you have the right mindset and some measure of resilience, doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to experience occasional bumps in the road. It does mean that, regardless of the size or scope of the challenges you may be facing, you’re going to be better prepared to muster the strength, confidence, and courage to keep moving forward.
~Marquita Herald

I often run into a similar misconception with my work with emotional resilience.

There are those who believe that the point of doing the work to develop resilience is to experience fewer problems in life, and this simply isn’t true.

Highly resilient people experience fear, uncertainty, and problems just like everyone else. The difference is they are able to quickly push through those moments of self-doubt and focus on what they need to do to get past the obstacles they are facing.

They choose not to let their circumstances define them and believe that whatever happens (even if it means a new reality) they will be okay, and as a result, they often grow as a result of their experience.

Again, big difference!

Nick Vujicic

Closing Thoughts

Look there are plenty of compelling arguments in favor of positive thinking, optimism, pessimism, defensive pessimism, realistic thinking, and on and on.

But no matter which camp you reside in here is the bottom line, we don’t always get to have a say about what happens to us in life, but we always (always) have control over how we choose to respond.

If you’re going through a difficult patch in your life or just having a really frustrating day and feel the need for a little quality “oh poor me” time or a good cry, that really is okay!

But instead of looking for ways to justify your feelings OWN them and you’ll not only recover faster but you’ll find yourself with a greater sense of control over your life circumstances.

I see positive thinking not as a magic wand to keep the bad stuff away as we sit back and wait for good things to happen, but as a tool to help us remain focused on the things that really matter and open to possibilities for growth in all life’s challenges.

Positive thinking does work; you just have to know what it is (and isn’t) and how to really use it.

Related reading:
Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living Start Here.

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  1. I hear you Martina and I’ve had many similar clients, especially around the time when the Secret was first so popular. It’s a hard lesson to learn and what’s really sad is some people never really make the connection that they are the real key to getting what they want out of life. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the conversation!

  2. I think I have many similar clients who also believe that just by thinking a postive thought their life will change but of course it does not always work like that. In order for our lives to change we need to take positive action. There is no pointing hoping for that perfect relationship, new job or more money just by wishful thinking. However if one of my clients thinks positively and then takes further action to make their wish come true then they are more likely to get a positive result.
    Martina McKeough recently posted…Gastric Band Hypnotherapy in NottinghamMy Profile

  3. Thanks for your kind words Sherill, I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post!

  4. sherill says:

    Beautifully written post. I totally agree that positive thinking does not mean we won’t be encountering obstacles in life…. it is having a good perspective that everything will be okay. Thanks for sharing an awesome post. Really Great!
    sherill recently posted…#AskNoahStJohn Show EpisodeMy Profile

  5. Great post Marquita. I too view positive thinking less as being cheery and unphased of what’s happening in the world, but more like taking on ups and downs with a can-do attitude! Not having a care in the world doesn’t make you more human than questioning how and why things unfold as they do.

  6. I’m glad to know that my article provided you with a different perspective Ken. I believe that one can be a realist (I certainly am!) and still maintain a positive attitude. I’ve overcome more than a few stumbling blocks and being confident in the knowledge that whatever happens I would be okay made a huge difference not only in the outcome but in the journey to recovery, and I have a long list of everyday heroes – like Nick – who feel the same way. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and for letting me know you found value in the article.

  7. I hear you Donna! I cringe every time I come across one of those “Don’t Worry Be Happy” quotes or articles, and it makes me sad to know that so many people have come to view positive psychology as little more than quackery in large part because of them. But it is what it is and my goal for this post was merely to provide a reality check. Thanks so much for sharing and contributing to the conversation.

  8. Glad you enjoyed the article Donna, and of course I couldn’t agree more with you when it comes to the importance of always moving forward. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation.

  9. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Doreen, and I’m so glad you like my tagline! 🙂

  10. Sounds like you’re on an important journey of self-discovery Jeri. For what it’s worth, chances are good your resilience and inner strength didn’t develop as a result of series of significant events, but rather as a culmination of the way you handle things day after day. Every time you face up to a problem or challenge, regardless of the size, you’re increasing your capacity for resilience. Thanks so much for sharing and contributing to the conversation. 🙂

  11. Well said Mitch! Admittedly, nothing I or anyone else says will ever sway some people to come over from the dark side, but that’s okay because we all find our own way in life. But personally I’ve managed to thrive through more than a few adverse situations in my life and my focus on resilience and positive thinking has served me well. Thank you so much for sharing and contributing to the conversation! An BTW I really enjoyed your latest article! 🙂

  12. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, and especially to let me know you found value in the post Mike.

  13. Ken Dowell says:

    I am among those who cast a bit of a wary eye upon the advocates of postivie thinking. I would probably like to think of myself as more of a realistic thinker. But I found this post to be interesting and helpful in terms of the perspective you put around your approach to positive thinking.

  14. Donna Janke says:

    Great post and explanation of postive thinking. I believe I am mostly a positive person, but get annoyed at comments that suggest positive thinking means being up and happy all the time, something I see as false cheerfulness. At times, things happen in life to which appropriate responses include sadness, anger, fear, and grief. I like your comment about positive thinking as a tool to stay focused on things that matter and be open to possibilities for change.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Discovering FromeMy Profile

  15. Hi Marquita,

    This is a really great topic. I always here people say “don’t tell me to think positive… it’s nonsense.”

    As you point out, it’s not nonsense if you understand it’s about focused thinking, not magic thinking. In that respect, “positive thinking” is an incredible force for getting yourself to that place you want to be.

    Of course the key is that you must always be putting your positive focus into action…that’s the real magic… otherwise it’s just idle dreaming.

    Nice job here 🙂

    Donna Merrill recently posted…It’s The Little Things That Big Dreams Are Made OfMy Profile

  16. I also confess to being a positive thinker. An optimist thru and thru. For me, it is the only way to be.

    I really love the line you use: “Let today be the day you give up who you are for who you can become.” Truly a great sentiment. Thx for sharing.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…hot on the trail of the best Nanaimo Bar experienceMy Profile

  17. Jeri says:

    I’m in the process of learning how I became resilient. It certainly does help that I don’t dwell on negatives. A person just needs to get on with life and keep moving forward, even if that pace is really slow. Once bad things have happened, when another blow comes, it’s easier to be positive because things always do get better.
    Jeri recently posted…#WriteTip: Turning a Play into a Novel by Larry CraneMy Profile

  18. I’m glad I’m not one of those people who hates positive thinking. I only wish I could turn it on 24/7… then again, I guess we all have to sleep sometime. I do know a lot of people who think it’s hokey stuff, so I ask them what thinking negatively does for them and that’s when they get defensive.

    Sorry folks but you can’t have it both ways and, as Zig said (paraphrasing), maybe you can’t do everything because of positive thinking but you will do everything better thinking positively than negatively. And that’s the magic of positive thinking, taking positive action to bring about positive results. 🙂
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…None Of Us Is Great At EverythingMy Profile

  19. Mike Wilson says:

    I really like your comment about what positive thinking is! It’s about tackling life’s challenges with a positive outlook. Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.
    Mike Wilson recently posted…How to Safeguard your Tax Returns this YearMy Profile

  20. Thanks for contributing to the conversation Dave. I sincerely appreciate your point, and there are many others who feel the same, but it really isn’t a different perspective at all. It is however a wonderful example of the power of mindset and the whole reason I wrote this article. Nowhere in positive psychology or in any study or research that I’ve ever found does it state that positive thinking is about being “UP” 24/7, that’s an assumption based on a predetermined attitude toward the concept.

    The power of our attitudes is that when we have a belief about a thing, even when we come across something that contradicts that belief, we filter out the contradictory information and look for ways to substantiate our beliefs, or simply ignore the information all together. Positive thinking isn’t about being perfect, or perfectly happy on a day-to-day basis, it’s just about accepting the power and authority we each have to manage our emotions and responses to life’s challenges. Thanks again, always value your thoughtful insights!

  21. Dave says:

    Well stated, Marty, and a very engaging quote by someone I think I know about halfway through the article 😉

    From a slightly different perspective, I will offer up that I am also a positive thinker, for the most part. But, there are always times when that positive nature comes under scrutiny. That is, I don’t believe anyone is positive every moment of every day.I think it’s an important point to bring up that we are all human. We have our good days and our bad days, in many different respects. But, just because we have a rough day today with a challenged sense of positivity doesn’t mean we can’t reengage with even more enthusiasm and potential at the next opportunity.

    Positive thinking builds upon itself. When you practice it, and apply it in the right ways (as you have detailed), it becomes a force to be reckoned with that gives you power to conquer any obstacle and overcome any bumps in the road. Thanks for sharing!
    Dave recently posted…Howard Thurman (#TQT)My Profile

  22. What a wonderful example Dana, thank you so much for sharing your story! And congratulations on how you’ve developed such a high level of self awareness and taken responsibility for your life, very inspiring.

  23. Very good point about the importance of self-compassion Michele! I have a self-care course a periodically run and this is a recurring problem for most women. I’m really glad you found value in the post and thank you so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation.

  24. Beautifully said RoseMary and what a perfect example. I find the stories of people who have overcome challenges of all shapes and sizes to be particularly inspiring – not to say that things could be worse (even thought they very often can be), but to see how others handle their journeys through adversity. In fact I’ve written about W. Mitchell here and how he experienced two horrific accidents and is today a motivational speaker. Well during a particularly dark periods a few years ago I mustered the nerve to reach out to him and thanked him for the strength I found in his story. He wrote the most amazing letter back to me and sent me one of his books with a personal inscription – oh my, I can tell you how much that meant to me at that time! This is another characteristic of resilient people, they are highly compassionate. Thanks so much for sharing Rose, always look forward to your visits. 🙂

  25. I personally love the idea of positive thinking and how it can shape our perspective towards the things that happen in our lives. I believe you do chose how you will react to things. For example, this past summer I was moved to a new department at work and my choice of offices was less than stellar. Much, much smaller than my previous office. I whined and complained about how tiny it was. At some point during all this, I realized I had a chance to completely redecorate my office and instead of dreading the move, I was now eagerly anticipating it and the possibilities it offered. Same office, different perspective. My office turned out great, I love it, and would hate to move. What a change!

    I have always been someone who’s thoughts tended to go straight to the negative, but through a daily gratitude practice and a conscientious effort to change my way of thinking, I now see things in a different light. I used to think my negative thoughts were just me being “realistic” but now I feel like you really can decide to be positive.
    Dana Lynn Thompson recently posted…Because I Like to Make Mountains Out of MolehillsMy Profile

  26. Michele Harvey says:

    This quote from your post, I believe, says it all: “Positive thinking isn’t about looking at the world through rose colored glasses, denying your fears, masking your feelings or sticking your head in the sand and hoping that your problems will just go away. It’s about tackling life’s challenges with a positive outlook.

    There is a huge difference!
    And, it certainly does not mean that if something undesired occurs, it occurs because you didn’t try hard enough or because you caused it in some way. In fact, it is very important to be gentle with yourself when “bad” things occur. This helps us to re-gain our perspective and to heal when it is necessary to do so.

  27. Well said, yet again, Marquita! Being an optimist with rose-colored glasses doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the real world or that I don’t face trials. I choose to face them and move forward. A friend, compassionate about the deaths of my parents, also couldn’t understand my ability to talk about them all the time and tell stories. They may be gone, but the stories keep me remembering all the great parts of being their kid. So, negative loss for sure, but I have to approach it from the other side.
    Thanks for making me think.
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…Hawaii, Hiking – Part 3 – KauaiMy Profile

  28. The strategy you describe is referred to as defensive pessimism William. It doesn’t work for everyone, but then neither does positive thinking, or any of the other variations on the same theme. The important thing is you’ve found a way to make it work for you! Thanks for sharing William, always appreciated.

  29. I’m glad you found value in the post Erica and I agree with you about the benefits of visualization. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the conversation.

  30. As for me, it is the self doubt, it is the negativity that has driven me. I have very low self esteem, instead of making it a define me, I use it to challenge me. It is my self doubt, it is the negativity that drives me. When I competed in Judo, I always believed I was the underdog, so I worked harder training. If I end up being positive, my drive lessens and I get over confident. Sometimes the negative things, give you the most positive results.
    William Rusho recently posted…The Black Death, not so bad, if it didn’t kill you.My Profile

  31. Erica says:

    What a good explanation of positive thinking. I know people who only focus on the negative, and they are never happy. But I think those same people can become super frustrated when they try to think positive, and the world doesn’t just transform around them. I think you don’t need to be a pessimist to receive benefit from actively working to focus on the positive. I do feel I personally benefit from visualization. I think that helps me think positively, even when things seem difficult. It isn’t a magic wand to manifest my desires. It is a tool to remind me where I am heading and not to give in to a detour.
    Erica recently posted…10 Daily Practices for Health & Weight LossMy Profile

  32. Glad you liked the article Sabrina and obviously I agree with you about the power of positive thinking to help us remain motivated and moving forward. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts – always appreciated.

  33. Well said Catarina. The interesting thing is that for those brave enough exploring what’s at the heart of some of these fantasies can be insightful. In one of my workshops a couple of years ago we were talking about big picture goals and a man said he wanted to be president. He was 50ish, a blue collar worker, and obviously not serious. But he agreed to be the guinea pig and after digging deeper it turned out he had a serious interest in politics but had never pursued it because he couldn’t see himself ever being able to overcome the lack of money and power stumbling blocks. Long story short, we worked out a plan for him to get involved on a county level and he gained experience and confidence working on committees through the mayor’s office. He’s now running for county council and I couldn’t be more proud of him! You just never know. 🙂

  34. I totally agree, Marquita. I am passionate about the topic of positive thinking. Yes, positive thinking is important, however, we also need to create plans, decide on a strategy, modify as needed, and take action through the ups and downs. To me, positive thinking is more about helping me stay motivated through the process. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…7 Book Storage Solutions For Small SpacesMy Profile

  35. Glad you found value in the post Lenie! Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the conversation. 🙂

  36. Well said Phoenicia! Obviously you are someone who is very self-aware and that makes all the difference. There is no question it takes time and effort, but we do have the power and authority to change our attitudes and behaviors if we choose to. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation!

  37. I can well imagine what a difficult period that must have been for you Jeannette. The thing is, we are all tested at various points in our lives. No one could possibly say that Nick Vujicic has not been tested! He has his down days like everyone else, but he is a huge believer in the power of a positive attitude. Nothing in positive psychology refers to being positive all the time, that’s an assumption people make based on their own biases and one of the many ways positive thinking is misinterpreted. Thanks so much for sharing your insightful thoughts and contributing to the conversation!

  38. Glad you enjoyed the article Mark, always appreciate your thoughtful insights.

  39. Catarina says:

    Personally am of the opinion that it’s essential to have a positive focus in life. When you do you achieve what for others are impossible. However, going to the extreme of thinking you can say, as a non American, be elected president of the United States is deceiving yourself.

    Same things apply to all issues in life you are not able to have an impact on. If you lead your life thinking you will not get old you are deluding yourself. Instead age gracefully and stay fit and positive. That way you can start a new career/projects when you are “too old to do so”.
    Catarina recently posted…Do you like Harvard’s new approach to leadership?My Profile

  40. lenie says:

    Marquita, I like this post and totally agree. Positive thinking isn’t the start of a fairy tale. I think this statement says it best – ” It’s about tackling life’s challenges with a positive outlook.”
    lenie recently posted…Organic Food Label – What’s Valid, What’s NotMy Profile

  41. Phoenicia says:

    Positive thinking means you will approach your challenges with a good heart and undefeated. That despite the battles, you will come through on the other side.

    As you rightly said, a positive mindset does not mean challenges will not come your way, we know they are inevitable. Our attitude matters – people notice. For me, I had to work on creating a positive mindset as I definitely lent towards the negative.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Is integrity becoming a thing of the past?My Profile

  42. Mark says:

    Bravo M!

    And for some odd reasons, there definitely does seem, to be to basic trains of thought.

    Some as you pointed out, simply want to bury their head in the sand, and pretend, simply by having a positive, or semi positive attitude, everything will some how, magically work out!

    While others, feel, whatever the comics stars have decreed, that’s it!LOL!

    Thanks for sprinkling so much needed common sense into the mix!LOL!
    Mark recently posted…Seven Potentially Profitable Reasons Why Coaching By Jupiter Jim Is Simply A Must!Part TwoMy Profile

  43. Jeannette Paladino says:

    Marquita — You can’t be positive all the time. It’s not human nature. The reality is negative thoughts pop into your head. It’s what you do with those thoughts that matter. Are you going to wallow in them and go into a funk, or recognize them for what they are?

    I was tested when my husband was dying, a period when another bad event was also going on in our lives. Of course, I had negative thoughts. How could I stay positive all the time? But I made every effort to recognize what was going on and understand that could overcome the challenges I was facing. I didn’t do it alone. I was surrounded by a support system of loving friends and family. That was a great help in moving forward and retaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity.

  44. Great points Dana! I know a lot of people use positive affirmations, and there are even studies that seem to indicate their value, but for me this is an example of your point about trying to “brainwash” ourselves into believing something when we really don’t … the foundation has to be there before we can begin building. Glad you liked the post, and yes I am a long-time fan of Nick’s. What an incredible inspiration he is. I’ve missed him twice here in Maui but hopefully one of these days because I’d love to attend one of his talks. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation!

  45. Dana says:

    Hi Marquita,

    I know it can be tough to implement positive thinking techniques – but only if we don’t know how to use it properly. I think the issue comes in when we ignore the negative and try to “brainwash” ourselves into believing a thought that we do not.

    Positive thinking in and of itself never worked for me, however, when I started to observe my own thought patterns, challenge the default negative position I held and realized I had a choice in which to respond (which I DID believe)…the positive thinking became realistic.

    You hit the nail on the head in regard to being free to choose how we respond. It’s about assuming personal responsibility.

    Your inclusion of Nick Vujicic was brilliant. That’s an individual who doesn’t deny his circumstances – but owns his interpretation of it.

    Beautiful post 🙂
    Dana recently posted…How to Use Anger Constructively (Instead of Allowing it to Consume You)My Profile