Negative Thinkers and Positive Thinkers

negative thinkers

The revered Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote these words for his immensely popular 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking:

The way to happiness: keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others. Do as you would be done by. Try this for a week and you will be surprised.

A study by Michigan State University is the first to provide evidence that Dr. Peale’s words are much easier said than done. The study, led by psychologist Jason Moser, provides biological evidence suggesting our brains are hardwired to be positive or negative thinkers.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers,” said Jason Moser

For the study, 71 female participants were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. Participants were shown a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat, for example, and told one potential outcome was the woman breaking free and escaping. Though, personally, I would have preferred that men had been included, the study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems and previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results.

The participants were surveyed beforehand to establish who tended to think positively and who thought negatively or worried. Sure enough, the brain reading of the positive thinkers was much less active than that of the worriers during the experiment.

“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions,” Moser said. “This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

There is no mention in the report of depression, but I would think further study would show that those of us who live with it would be more susceptible. I can’t think of a single person I know with depression, including myself, who doesn’t live with constant worry. To me, it is another curse I have to live with.

I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow. It is the dark menace of the future that makes cowards of us.

Nice quote from Dorothea Dix, but I don’t think I’m a coward. Dealing with depression, and therefore I worry – I think of myself as a survivor, not a coward. Comments like hers may be well meaning, but according to Moser “You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry – that’s probably not going to help them, so you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

Negative thinkers could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference

Source: Michigan State University

  10 comments for “Negative Thinkers and Positive Thinkers

  1. April 8, 2014 at 03:47

    I find people who are overly positive to be exhausting and problematic, ESPECIALLY when they point it at me. Great that you are optimistic and happy and sunshine-y, but I am so devoid of spoons that it’s like punching me in the face with a great ball of fire. And then you’re supposed to find energy to be gracious and grateful because they ‘meant well’ and whelp, big ball of spoon-destroying willful misunderstanding. ¬¬ I manage to mainly keep optimistic and cheerful, but that is 100% for myself. I don’t need anyone else splaying sunshine at me.

    • April 8, 2014 at 05:36

      Bright-sidedby Barbara Ehrenreich is a good debunking of tthe cult of positivism.

      • April 8, 2014 at 07:44

        I will have to consider checking that out, thank you. 🙂

    • Bradley
      April 8, 2014 at 12:05

      I’ve learned that some of the biggest smiles are hiding a lot of pain inside

  2. kat
    April 7, 2014 at 12:28

    finally, im vindicated. all my life i was told to just ‘stop worrying’, just ‘stop being depressed’, just focus on the positives. and the more i tried, the worse i felt and the worse it all seemed. it is good to know that we are actually hardwired in this way, and that i am not just weak and lacking in character or strength. it is good to know it is not my fault, that i did not just go around making my own problems.

    • Bradley
      April 7, 2014 at 13:30

      Kat, haven’t we seen like three studies lately which made us both say we feel vindicated? My hope is that all there recent findings will help speed up the process for newer and better medications.

  3. April 7, 2014 at 09:20

    It also doesn’t help to tell a depressed person to smile or cheer up. In fact, it makes things worse. It’s like Allie Brosh said in Hyperbole and a Half: [T]rying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.

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