Posts Tagged ‘Positive thinking’

Learning to Argue with Yourself

November 23, 2019

This the ninth post in the series of posts based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. As we all likely have argued with others, to be optimistic we also need to argue with ourselves. There are four important ways to make disputations convincing:

*Evidence?
*Alternatives?
*Implications?
*Usefulness?

The best way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Fortunately, much of the time we will have facts on our side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are typically overreactions. So we adopt the role of detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?”

Seligman notes that it is important to see the difference between this approach and the so-called “power of positive thinking.” Positive thinking often involved trying to believe upbeat statements such as “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence. Many educated people, trained in skeptical thinking, cannot abide this kind of boosterism. In contrast, learned optimism is about accuracy.

Research has shown that merely repeating positive statements to yourself does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all. It is how you cope with negative statements that has an effect. Usually negative beliefs that follow adversity are inaccurate. Most people catastrophize: From all the potential causes, they select the one with the direct implications. One of your most effective techniques in disputation will be to search for evidence pointing to the distortions in you catastrophic explanations. Most of the time you will have reality on your side. Seligman writes, “Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.”

Rarely nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events have many causes. Should you do poorly on a test, all of the following might have contributed: how hard the test was, how much you studied, how fair the professor is, how the other students did, how tired you were and so forth. Pessimists typically latch onto the worst of all the possible causes—the most permanent, pervasive, and personal ones.

Disputation usually has reality on its side. Since there are multiple causes, why latch onto the most insidious one? Rather, latch onto the most innocuous one. Focus on the changeable (not enough time spent studying), the specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard), and the non-personal (the professor graded unfairly) causes. You may have to push hard at generating alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities you are not fully convinced are true. Remember that much pessimistic thinking consists of just the reverse.

Of course, facts won’t always be on your side. The negative belief you hold about yourself may be correct. In this situation, the technique to use is decatastrophizing. You ask yourself, even if this belief is correct, what are its implications? How likely, you should ask yourself are the awful implications? Once you ask if the implications are really that awful, repeat the search for evidence.

Sometimes the consequence of holding a belief matter more than the truth of the belief. Is the belief destructive? Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can all sympathize with that sentiment, but the belief that the world should be fair may cause more grief than it’s worth. Sometimes it is very useful to get on with your day, without taking the time to examine the accuracy of your beliefs and then disputing them. Here the example Seligman provides is a technician doing bomb demolition. He might think, “This could go off and I might be killed”—with the result that his hands shake. In this case Seligman recommends distraction over disputation. Whenever you have to perform now, you will find distraction the tool of choice.

Another tactic is to detail all the ways you can change the situation in the future. Even if the belief is true now, is the situation changeable? If so, how can you go about changing it?

Can Optimism Be Bad?

May 22, 2011

Optimism and positive thinking are heavily advocated as means to not only happiness, but also to better physical and mental health. A recent article1 calls these beliefs into question. According to the authors, “…positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.”

It should be appreciated that it is difficult to conduct research that does provide hard evidence that a positive attitude is beneficial. Most of the research is correlational and that can make it difficult to distinguish cause from effect. Obviously if you question a group that is healthier, happier, or more successful and rate their optimism or positivity scores against a group lacking in any of these attributes, it should not be surprising that the former group has higher ratings than the latter. It is also difficult to conduct controlled experiments on this topic. Suppose one group is given training on optimism and positive thinking and another group is not given this training and serves as a control. If the group given the training does score significantly than the control group, it could be the due to their being given special treatment, rather than the treatment it, oneself. This artifactual result is known as the Hawthorne Effect.

I think it is useful to make a distinction between the optimism/pessimism dimension, and the positive/negative thinking dimension. I think that the optimism/pessimism dimension is best regarded as a personality trait. That is, whether people see the glass as half empty or half full is basically determined by a personality trait. I tell people that I am a congenital pessimist. I definitely have a tendency to see the downside. There are benefits to being a pessimist, however. For example, pessimists have been found to be less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death. Although I need not extol the benefits of being an optimist, one obvious benefit is that optimists are more likely to persevere. It seems like most successful people have typically undergone failures, sometimes many failures, be before achieving success. Pessimists, however, having given up early, rarely achieve success.

Regardless of one’s innate disposition with respect to the optimism/pessimism dimension, I think it is important that everyone engages in both positive and negative thinking. Pessimists need to engage in positive thinking so that they will not overlook possible opportunities and will not give up prematurely in the pursuit of opportunities. If they like being miserable, fine, but positive thinking can make one happier and be more pleasant. The important point for pessimists is that they also activate the positive circuits in their brains (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Optimists need to engage in negative thinking to keep them from pursuing foolish or unrealistic events. I remember reading about a married couple who were so energized after seeing the movie Rocky (the original, not one of the numerous sequels) that they put their entire wealth on a lottery tickets. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I think you get the idea, to be sure to activate the negative circuits of your brain (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Unfortunately, positivism is oversold. I become angry when I hear someone tell a child that they can be anything they want provided they put their mind to it. While it is true that most people can probably achieve more than they think they can, a substantial contributor to success is opportunity, If opportunities are not available at the appropriate times, success is likely to be stunted. For example, the famed football coach, Vince Lombardi spent many years as an assistant coach before finally being offered the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. If memory serves me correctly, I believe I saw a movie2 in which Lombardi was ready to quit coaching before being offered the Packers’ job. As a result of this opportunity, he went on to become one of the most famous coaches of all time and had the Super Bowl Trophy named after him. This is a conjecture on my part, but believe that there were many potential Lombardi’s in the NFL assistant coaching ranks who never got the chance. Similarly, I think that there were potential Hall of Famers at the quarterback position, who either never were drafted, or who never got a chance at a starting position. There is nothing special about professional football. I think you can find examples in any endeavor you choose. Although you can and should prepare yourself for opportunity, you might need to realize that the opportunity might not come. And if it does not come, you should not view yourself as a failure, but rather as someone who did fulfill their existing potential.

1Lilienfeld, S.O., & Arkowitz, H. (2011). Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? Scientific American Mind, May/June, 64-65.

2I understand another movie is scheduled to come out in February 2012 with Robert DeNiro playing the role of Lombardi.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving

November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving is the holiday devoted to being thankful for all the good things we have and all the good people we know (more commonly called blessings). It is a positive holiday when we should focus on the positive features of our lives. Continuing to focus on the positive contributes to a healthy memory. Consequently, it is good to carry the positive frame of mind fostered by Thanksgiving throughout the entire year.

Positive thinking fosters more positive thinking. The expression is “neurons that fire together wire together.” So thinking positive thoughts activates circuits that will be more likely to fire together in the future. How you feel is affected by how you interpret your environment. You see a glass with water at the halfway mark. Do you interpret that as half empty or half full? The interpretation is up to you, and this interpretation will affect the way you think and feel. In other words you have the capacity to change your brain if you choose to exercise it.

Paying attention to the internal sensations of your body can also have effects. The insular cortex is a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body. When a person meditates, her insular cortex becomes thicker as a result of neurons making more and more connections with each other. (See the Healthymemory Blog posts “The Relaxation Response,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention”). The insular cortex plays a role in emotion, homeostasis, perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. A malfunctioning insular cortex can lead to psychopathology. In addition to meditation activities such as paying attention to your breathing, yoga, Tai Chi, and dancing can put you in touch with the internal sensations of your body.

Remember the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” If you think negatively, you are reinforcing negative circuits and the further promotion of harmful negative thoughts. So foster positive circuits by thinking positively. I hope you had a happy thanksgiving and I hope you continue this happiness throughout the entire year.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.