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  • Writer's pictureStacy Taylor, LCSW

Are You Positive?

Updated: Jul 6

There was a fascinating study done several years ago. They took pessimists and tried to turn them into optimistics.

The participants were not just pessimists, but also depressed and anxious. Researchers hypothesized that becoming more positive would alleviate their symptoms.

But guess what? The opposite occurred.

The depressives were given intensive exposure to positive psychology. They had several weeks of individual therapy, groups, and take-home assignments. Then they were tested at the end to see whether their depression and anxiety abated.

They were actually more anxious and depressed than they were to begin with.

Now this may seem counterintuitive. Our culture teaches us that thinking positive helps almost every ailment known to humankind.

This advice may be true for optimists. But as the study showed, for pessimists, it had the opposite effect.

Why? There are two reasons, I think.

First, their pessimism was a defense mechanism. By thinking negatively, they were psychologically prepared if something bad happened to them.

But when they tried to practice optimism, they lost this protective shield and felt more vulnerable to the winds of fate. And when something bad happened, they were caught off guard.

Another reason, I think: they may have experienced a sense of shame by the project itself. The study assumed that pessimism is bad and optimism is good. So pessimists may have felt even more defective and inadequate by being told they should change.

What is the lesson here? I think it's to try to accept who you are. Optimism is not necessarily good and pessimism bad.

In fact, other studies have shown that pessimists are more discerning, while optimists can miss a lot of clues in the environment. As witnesses to crime, for instance, pessimists are spot on about details, whereas optimists miss most of the warning signs.

The bottom line is that we are who we are, and it isn't easy to change this. And, as the research shows us, trying to do so may backfire.

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