Why Positive Thinking Will Never Fix Your Broken Spirit

Sad Woman trying to be a successful positive thinker holding up a hand-drawn smile

You hopped on the positive-thinking bandwagon, didn’t you?

At home, you wake up earlier than usual to visualize your idyllic version of the future. At work, you silently chant daily affirmations like mantras:

“I am successful in everything I do.”

“I am a valued employee.”

“I am wonderful.”

At night, you write ten things you’re thankful for in a gratitude journal.

After months of this, you feel better than you have in a long time. Small things bring you joy.

People notice you’ve changed. Your boss compliments you, giving you an extra project. Coworkers seek your advice. Friends find your smile contagious.

Yet, the new project doesn’t bring you the promotion you hoped for.

You convince yourself it doesn’t matter. You swallow the lump in your throat and continue your positivity ritual.

A year passes, maybe two. You’ve been promoted, finally, but are burdened with extra responsibility and a slightly higher salary that doesn’t match the workload.

You go through the motions: visualize, affirm, journal, repeat. It comes naturally to you, but you have a sinking feeling you fail to explain.

You’re sluggish mentally and physically. The emptiness inside you grows. An undefinable obstacle lies ahead. But what’s on the other side? What are you trying to achieve?

You’re painfully uncertain about everything. You smile wider, even though you want to cry.

Something will happen. It has to. Because your optimism has aligned you with the universe… right?

Living in a perfectly positive world

Buying into the positive-thinking hype, the same message echoes over and over: your negative mindset blocks your bliss.

To turn your self-perpetuating negative cycle into a positive one, identify your destructive mind chatter, then replace it with dreamy, optimistic views. Practice makes perfect. Constant repetition rewires your brain.

The recipe is simple.

Gratitude lifts your mood.

Affirmations create an upward movement to generate positive emotions, behavior, and actions.

Add visualizations of what you want to have or who you want to be. Creating a vision board helps.

Soon you’ll have the upgraded version of life you desire. It’s like placing an order on Amazon.

For example:

Lost your job?

  • Recite that life is wonderful!

Why me?

  • Remember: YOU are responsible for your own happiness and success.

Why am I always unlucky?

  • Energy goes where attention flows! Visualize your ideal job and it’s magically yours.

Positive thinking, our modern-day panacea, is your best alternative to antidepressant use when overwhelmed with life.

Therefore the road to success, happiness, and health is to be relentlessly positive, right?


The positive-thinking bubble

Our growing trend of self-improvement reveals the abnormal concept that we need to be fixed.

The number of self-help books is reaching epic proportions, ballooning into a billion-dollar industry in the last thirty years. Even the US coaching industry touched $1 billion. And everyone touts positive thinking.

But how did it pervade society?

The optimism takeover: A brief history of positive thinking

In her book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, author Barbara Ehrenreich uncovers the historic roots of this overly optimistic tactic as a response to strict Calvinist ideology.

The religious “self-examination to the point of self-loathing” weighed heavily on the first American settlers, isolated in a strange new land.

As the country prospered, and scholars such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James formulated new philosophies, a more popular movement called Mind Cure emerged. James found this positive culture formidable with its religious-like influence and mass-market literature documenting first-hand accounts of its “saving power.”

The first self-help evangelism gained traction through various businessmen and promoters like Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone, names made familiar in the popular book, The Secret.

Positive thinking continued through the early 1900s until the 1960s via ever-growing self-help literature. It first resonated with traveling salesmen who found it an effective support system in rejection-filled days. Then it invaded the business world.

Ehrenreich believes that sports-turned-business coaches were instrumental in motivating the workforce in the 1980s when massive corporate downsizing increased the workloads of demoralized employees.

But while positive talk and mindsets infiltrated our consumer-oriented business world, optimism was also taking over the realm of psychology.

This is where it gets tricky.

Positive psychology “is the scientific study of what makes life worth living.”  And positive thinking is merely one of many positive psychology techniques.

So, let’s break down the consequences of confusing positive thinking with overly optimistic gobbledygook.

The negative side of positive thinking

Most optimistic-thinking techniques are questionable.

Visualization is suggested for treating anxiety, cancer, depression, and psychological disorders among others.

Yet studies show that visualization as a relaxation technique is useful for “older adults with anxiety” on a short-term basisIn fact, positive fantasies actually diminish your chance for success because they don’t energize you to work for your desires.

So, if you’re looking for a long-term fix, then cognitive-behavioral therapy is more effective.

Similarly, much web-based babble promotes positive thinking as innate healing that risks deflating your energies even more.

For example, a woman with a terminal illness contacted a famous health guru. Even though following all of his principles, she asked him why she wasn’t improving.

His response? She wasn’t applying herself enough!

Too bad he didn’t read that positive psychology techniques fail to strengthen the immune system or benefit cancer recovery.

But, you insist, “positive thinking helped some of my smaller goals come true….”

What about ‘em?

Law of attraction (LOA) enthusiasts see results in simple things: you think of someone and he calls you out of the blue. You crave a coffee and a coworker suddenly brings you one.

As one psychologist observes, you could receive the same result if you rub on a rabbit’s foot, pray for it, or do nothing at all.

Don’t feel guilty, though… you’re just biased.

The optimism bias

In a TED Talk, scientist Tali Sharot explains optimism bias as something naturally occurring in all of us. We “overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events.”

While a healthy dose of bias reduces stress and anxiety levels, helps depression, and increases self-confidence, an unhealthy amount creates an unrealistic view of life.

We don’t see ourselves as likely to get cancer, divorced, or lose jobs. We see the ‘other person’ as more likely to have bad things happen to her.

For example, people texting while driving put their own and other people’s lives at risk. Yet, when asked how dangerous this was, very few found it life-threatening.

Even the science of optimism has been accused of bias, publishing a majority of successful research literature.

You can’t fix something you don’t understand

Positive mantras and the substitution of negative thoughts for positive ones merely puts a band-aid on a wound.

How constructive is thinking, “It’s okay I didn’t get promoted… something better will come along?”

Try asking yourself some difficult questions like, “is this job what I really want?” Or “could I have done something differently?”

You might find you’re stuck in an illusion you’ve created for yourself.

Gary Vaynerchuck warns against falling in love with a vision of who think you are because “…we’re really not good at knowing what we want.” Or who we are.

Often, people enjoy these illusive thoughts to avoid depression.

“…. Most hide behind the smile because they are afraid of facing the world’s complexity….They try to lose themselves in the laughing masses, hoping the anxiety will never again visit them….” Eric G. Wilson

Currently, more than 300 million people globally suffer from depression. This number is expected to grow by 2024 as antidepressant-use increases for treating mild to moderate depression, not just severe cases.

However, being slightly depressed is both normal and natural. How do you appreciate happiness until you’ve known sadness?

Mental and emotional repression causes more harm than good. You suffocate innovation, creativity, and healthy self-reflection. Suppressing negative states also boomerangs, returning under different forms such as panic attacks, addiction, and anxiety.

The excessive optimism test

You know you have a bad case of Optimism Overload if you feel:

  • lost
  • frustrated
  • empty
  • guilty (for not being completely happy)
  • overly complacent
  • reckless or hasty in your decision-making
  • like crying for no apparent reason

Recognize any traits? Welcome to the club.

Worst of all, you risk isolation. Especially when surrounded by uber-positive people who never admit to failure, sadness or anxiety — no wonder you feel lonely.

You need to explore a different path. Most likely you won’t need antidepressants if you don’t qualify as a severe case.*

Trust your misery instead.

Enjoy the discomfort of reality

Dive into your pessimism because some negative thoughts are actually good for you.

Obviously, thoughts like “I’m a failure” or “I can’t do this” are self-defeating, limiting your ability to distinguish possibilities from obstacles.

However, thoughts like “This is going to be difficult, I’ll need to work harder,” or “I wasn’t expecting this downfall, let’s see if there’s useful information here,” are productive, motivating, and a predictor of success.

It’s time to face your inner messages — the good, the bad, the ugly, all of which include the negativity you’ve been avoiding for so long.

1. Shut up, sit still, and listen

Identifying your dark side is the first and most important step.

Schedule a short, daily chunk of time to explore your inner turmoil. Practicing mindfulness facilitates introspection.

Mindfulness means being in the moment, actively focusing your attention on the present, without worrying about the future or mulling over the past. It’s a “healthy way to identify and manage hidden emotions that may be causing problems….”

Mindfulness lowers stress and anxiety levels, builds resilience, and makes you more thoughtful. It helped me recognize and cope with anxiety when diagnosed with leukemia.

Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of Headspace, uses meditation to achieve a “relaxed focus” on the present moment, heightening self-awareness and clarity.

All you need for self-awareness is 10 minutes a day, every day.

Avoid isolating yourself in this stage. Designate some self-awareness time, yet make space to be with people you love and who sincerely care about you.

You don’t need a thousand people beside you. A select few will suffice. Plan and do things together that you all enjoy.

2. Own it

Acceptance of any emotional state is crucial, but don’t confuse it with agreement, complacency, or passivity.

Accepting negativity means acknowledging feelings without labeling them as good or bad. Detach all judgment, note your mood, and allow yourself to move forward, deciding to act or not.

After my diagnosis, I cried and anguished over my predicament. Then, I accepted the situation and faced the disease with a clarity I never had before.

Experiencing passionate sensations is healthy as long as you keep it in check. As Daniel Goleman points out in his seminal work, Emotional Intelligence, any anxiety or strong negative emotion that is chronic will not benefit you.

Rumination over a situation that is out of your control also wastes energy and time you could better use to evaluate other options.

3. Challenge or manage

In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle recognized he was not his thoughts.

Contemplating suicide, he had a sudden insight. As he thought, “I want to kill myself,” he questioned it. Who was “I” and who was “myself?” As soon as he detached from his own thoughts, he sought to challenge each one as they arose.

Melancholy stops us and forces reflection. It offers space to question the meaning of our grief, adjust to a new situation, and move on.

When you find yourself caught up in despair, be analytical.

The Work of Byron Katie creates a foundation for self-examination. Her guided set of questions uncovers the roots of suffering. Through confrontation comes relief.

“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts I suffered, but when I didn’t believe them I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that.” Byron Katie.

A scientific method works wonders, too. Try the 5 Whys, a root-cause technique to understand the crux of a problem. Or be more philosophical toward your own beliefs and thought processes to create a more detached awareness.

I am a failure” turns into “Why did I fail.” Then you can proceed to, “I failed. Big deal. Failure is a useful step toward success.”

After all, it took Edison multiple failures before he invented the light bulb. So cheer up, there’s hope for you yet.

Under construction: A new path to positive thinking

Worry and fear are primordial feelings. A trigger-like response to perceived dangers facilitates identifying your negativity and utilizing it for problem-solving.

As your negativity radar sharpens, you might experience resistance.

Here’s how to stay on track:

1. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

When not self-defeating, some negative thoughts classify as defensive pessimism, which manages anxiety in a healthy way and leads to achievement.

Defensive pessimists think strategically and design multiple contingency plans, preparing for worst-case scenarios. In his book on resilience, Shoot for the Moon, psychologist Richard Wiseman cites this type of preparedness as one of the key factors to success.

For example, this type of pessimist exercises regularly, not to develop muscle or look good, but to prevent disease or unhealthy weight gain. She also saves money for future, unexpected economic or health crises.

Optimism is also healthy when realistic.

Realistic optimists expect life’s ups-and-downs, but remain confident in positive ends. They exhibit more resilience than other types of optimists in the face of failure and readily acknowledge the causes of unwanted outcomes.

Didn’t land that promotion? What could you have done differently?

Understand how to be better prepared the next time.

Both of these strategies generate hope, which fosters:

  • motivation
  • flexibility
  • resourcefulness
  • reassurance

Use your feelings to steel yourself for challenges and recognize opportunities.

2. Be authentic

What if you landed that new role and found it didn’t fit well? Maybe it caused more distress than positive stress (eustress).

The positive-thinking craze leads many to believe they want to live in a 20-bedroom mansion or be the next Steve Jobs. But does being an entrepreneur excite you?

Ditch the material desires and cultivate passion in your life. What about your hobbies?  Or what can you do without noticing the minutes turning into hours? Study your talents, values, and interests to find the direction you want to pursue.

If you see yourself as the next Oprah Winfrey, then go for it. Be realistically certain you want to put in the work, and plan the small steps to reach your goal. Also, prepare yourself for setbacks — they’re part of the game.

Feel motivated and exhilarated? Good, start immediately.

If not, explore various options until you find one that clicks. Asking yourself difficult questions leads to self-discovery, where new possibilities present themselves. So take risks, but don’t be reckless. And if you make a mistake, accept it and start over.

3. Stay alert

As you begin to walk down this new path, continue to monitor your responses, whether positive or negative.

Your reactions provide you with valuable information in any situation. If you want to apply for a new role but aren’t sure if it’s the right step, evaluate your feelings.

Why do you want this role? What will it provide? What do you hope to achieve?

Before making a decision, assess both long- and short-term risks. Even listing the pros and cons provides illumination.

Having trouble understanding yourself? Then ask a peer for advice, or find a friend or a trusted family member who will tell you the truth, not what you want to hear.

Above all, strive for meaning. While happiness sits on the opposite side of sadness, significance keeps you steady.

Aiming for the greater good for yourself, your loved ones and humanity generates more stability, resilience, and overall satisfaction.

Each ending is a new beginning

You now understand that excessive positive thinking repressed useful emotions, causing that sinking, empty feeling inside you.

Use this new knowledge to immediately bounce back and feel more self-assured. You can now discover if it’s a promotion you want, a different job, or even a new career. Maybe you’ll prefer to slow down and savor life. Have more quality time with family and friends, and dedicate some time to self-care.

You alone can pave a more meaningful road forward out of the gloom.

And, when those moments of despair do arise? You’ll manage those moments like a pro, confident and self-possessed, free of the positive-thinking illusion once weighing you down.


*DISCLAIMER: the health and wellness information included here is not a substitute or a replacement for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


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