How Positive Thinking Can Result in Negative Feeling


When I was a little kid, I discovered that almost any time I looked forward to something, my expectations exceeded reality. 

For example, I fantasized about how incredible my seventh birthday was going to be. I imagined that I would receive a magical birthday pony. I pretended that I would become a real flying ninja princess. I played and replayed the birthday over and over again in my mind until I expected that the whole day would be full of sunshine, butterflies, and perfection. Then, when my seventh birthday rolled around and it was just a typical kids birthday -- fun and happy but not perfect -- I'd feel disappointed no matter how grateful I tried to be. 

With the focused intensity and enthusiasm shared by most imaginative kids, I experimented with different solutions to my problem. I finally decided that henceforth I would allow myself to look forward to events, but not too much (I told my mom that I had decided not to look forward to anything any more, and she wisely suggested that half the fun of something is in looking forward to it, so I conceded to her superior reasoning and acquiesced a bit). I would be happy about future plans, but I wouldn't let myself drift away on fantasies of perfect happiness. And it worked. As long I stuck to this tactic, I rarely felt disappointed. When an event rolled around, I could enjoy it for what it was instead of comparing it to what I had imagined. 

Since then, some of the only times I've experienced deep disappointment have occurred after miring in overly positive thought and unrealistic expectations.  Adam Alter's recent article on the drawbacks on positive thinking suggests that the machinations of my seven-year-old brain wasn't just silly kid stuff: it looks like science supports it:

According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.

You know that too-much-positive-thinking-leading-to-deep-disappointment thing I mentioned? Like many other millennials, I had unreasonable expectations for what my post-college life and career would look like. Even though my reality hasn't been bad, it has fallen short of my rose-colored daydreams. As this article says, "when the reality of someone's life is better than they had expected, they're happy. When reality turns out to be worse than the expectations, they're unhappy."

If overly optimistic expectations ruin our happiness, and overly pessimistic expectations make us no fun at parties, what do we have left? How do you avoid the pitfalls of positive thinking without succumbing to an avalanche of negative brooding? 

I think the answer is hopeful realism. Think about that seven-year-old little girl who knows her birthday is tomorrow. She hopes she'll get a pony, and she even indulges in a little daydreaming about it, but she knows she probably won't get a pony and sets her mind to having a good time anyway.  And so she does.