It’s not the thoughts that are the problem. It’s what we do with them.
A recent New York Times op-ed took issue with positive thinking. “What if we’re trying too hard to think positive?” asks Oliver Burkeman. According to research, he writes, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. “Or take affirmations,” he writes, “those cheery slogans intended to lift the user’s mood by repeating them: I am a lovable person! My life is filled with joy! Psychologists at the University of Waterloo concluded that such statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse—not least because telling yourself you’re lovable is liable to provoke the grouchy internal counterargument that, really, you’re not.”
But is this really true? According to the principles of Positive Psychology, focusing on growing happiness, love, success, and strengths through positive thinking is far more effective than trying to overcome anxiety, neuroses, and weakness alone. At the same time, overcoming anxiety and finding happiness needn’t mean denying less desirable emotions, such as fear, anxiety, or sadness. “Negative emotions are an inevitable fact of life,” says Susan B. Lord, MD, who leads many Kripalu Healthy Living programs. “Instead of thinking about how we can live without them, we should be thinking about how to deal with them.” That is, it’s not negative thinking that‘s the problem—it’s how we choose to react to it. “Sadness is part of life, grief is a part of life, but depression means your sadness has gotten stuck,” she says. “The idea is to be mindful of the kinds of thoughts we have. Some are positive and some are negative. Our lives involve both.”
So how to reconcile—and work with—negative thoughts without getting stuck in them? Susan offers these tips.
Realize that not every thought that goes through your mind is true. We have a genetic predisposition to be negative. To survive, we’re programmed to remember all the bad things that ever happened to us, with the idea that if we’re “prepared” for them, they’re less likely to happen again. But our life circumstances—and our emotions—change all the time. We’re on top of the world—and then we’re not. The key is not getting too attached to any one emotion, whether that’s a desirable or less-desirable one.
Remember that emotions can’t actually be negative. All emotions are valid and part of life. It’s the behaviors that come out of them that can be negative. There’s nothing wrong with anger if it’s expressed appropriately. There’s nothing wrong with sadness if you can sit with it, understand it, and let it go.
Don’t kid yourself. It’s true that it’s not helpful to say things to yourself that are totally untrue to you. Saying “My life is awesome!”—if it’s not—will ring false. Instead, find an affirmation that represents the truth. Maybe that’s “Every day I’m becoming a little happier, and a little more self-aware.” It’s moving in the right direction, without being an exaggeration.
Remember the experience of better times. Instead of saying “I’m a loving person,” try to remember what it’s like to fall in love—and really feel what that was like. What was it like to have your lover stroke your skin? Or look in your eyes, or to do special things for that person? If you can get your body into that state, your brain will think it’s true. And that’s when you’re really planting the seeds for your future.