Positive Thinking: New Reasons to Say The Hell With It

At Cranky Fitness, we are not known for Excessive Optimism, Unrestrained Cheerfulness, or Gratuitous Positivity--unless there's an actual reason to be positive. And, um, how often does that tend to happen?

I've even been an advocate of Negative Thinking, if it's the sensible kind. (My philosophy, in brief: Anticipate the negative and plan for the worst, but appreciate the hell out of it when the bad things don't actually happen!)

Plus, if a blogger named Crabby McSlacker can't defend pessimism, then who the heck else will?

Well... it turns out that in the battle against relentless Positivity, I've got some new allies!

The folks at Time Magazine*** just did an article on the futility of positive thinking that contradicts everything you ever heard before. The article's title? "Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking."

Basically, it discusses research showing that "trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are." And it introduced me to a whole "third wave of therapy" based on accepting, rather than fighting negative thoughts.

Think that sounds totally backwards and crazy-assed?

Well, so do some of the more traditional cognitive psychologists! So it seems there's a little cognitive catfight going on.

Note: no Cognitive Psychologists
were harmed during this dramatization.

Photo: Icanhascheeseburger

Why Does Happy Talk Sometimes Backfire?

According to the Time Magazine roundup, research tends to show that when people hear an argument they don't believe, it makes them even more likely to cling to their original position.

Not buying it? Well, as an example, they ask you to picture a light-night bar debate in which someone claims that "Sarah Palin is brilliant," or that "Michael Jackson was not a freak." OK, now see how that works?

And a new positivity study suggests that this same obstinacy may kick in when it comes to positive self-talk. In particular, if a person with low self esteem tries to repeatedly tell themselves that they are lovable, it doesn't raise their self esteem--it lowers it!

Don't Fight the Feelings

So now there's a relatively new approach to therapy that incorporates research like this into the futility of changing negative thoughts. It's called "ACT," for "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy."

Spokes-shrink Steven Hayes says we should "acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout life," and instead of trying to challenge them, "we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values."

What should we do with these negative thoughts? Instead of arguing with them, Hayes advocates observing them with mindfulness, defusing their power, and not getting entangled in them.

For example, instead of saying to yourself "I'm depressed," Hayes thinks you should say "I'm having the thought that I'm depressed."

You're also supposed to work on clarifying your values, and moving towards actually living them. Do you say you value your friends and community and physical well-being, but somehow spend every weekend sitting in front of the TV scarfing cheetos by yourself?


It All Get's Too F*cking Arcane and Tedious for Me, Though

I was initially intrigued, because while I believe in the efficacy of more traditional cognitive therapy in a LOT of situations, other times it just seems a little too fake and cheerleadery. Sometimes life just sucks, and the pessimistic view is not "irrational," and efforts to take a crappy situation and paint it over with falsely positive happy talk can indeed seem counterproductive.

However, my initial curiosity about ACT and this whole "third wave" thing was dampened a bit once I started reading more. "Relational frame theory" and "functional contextualism" and how is it different from "dialectical behavioral therapy," blah blah blah--it's the same kind of incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo psychological theories always seem to employ in order to sound scholarly and serious. Someday, with a bit more patience, I'll have to wade in and find out if there are good practical ideas for dealing with counter-productive thinking lurking behind the jargon.

(But then I also heard rumors from the Traditional Cognitive Therapy people that ACT people were just a big ol' new age cult and they and make people wear silly hats and use secret handshakes discourage dissent. What do I know? But check out the photo of their Leader-- it does indeed look kinda scary.)


Why Choose?

Here's what I think: if you have negative thoughts that are getting in your way and it helps to argue with them, then argue with them! Replace them with happier, more positive thoughts.

But if the negative thoughts persist despite your efforts, then accept them as thoughts and don't let them control you. Focus on your goals instead.

Whatever works!

Or, if all else fails, try Crabby's Home Remedy: whine a little, then go for a nice long walk, then come home and curl up with a comforting beverage and cuddle with a cat, dog, child, significant other, rabbit, pet rock, garden gnome, security blanket, or whatever makes you happy.

And if you still want to join a cult? Crankyism is always on the lookout for new recruits!

***Confidential Aside to Time Magazine:

OK, thanks very much for the research and all, but fer cryin' out loud, how is anyone supposed to take your online articles seriously when they're full of these ridiculous computer-generated links for totally unrelated crap? Like these two had "see pictures of couples in love," "see pictures of people mourning the death of Michael Jackson," and "see pictures of facial yoga." WTF???

So, how do you folks deal with negative thoughts? Fight them, accept them, obsess about them, defuse them, believe them, ignore them?

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