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  • Writer's pictureStacy Taylor, LCSW

Be Positive?

We live in a generally upbeat culture, especially those of us who live in California. The attitude tends to be that being positive and optimistic is better. But is that true? Certainly, mental health professionals and lay people alike will assert that this is the case. But, surprisingly, a number of studies have refuted this belief system, that optimism is better.

For instance, there was a famous study done a number of years ago of women with breast cancer who were in support groups, where they practiced positive thinking. Purportedly, the optimistic women lived longer or even beat back the cancer. But years later, researchers reviewed the study and found many statistical errors. It turns out that thinking positively did not help the women with breast cancer live longer.

In fact, there was an earlier study done of women suffering from breast cancer. This study showed the opposite: that women who became angry and emotional about the cancer lived longer.

Aside from the research around illness, other studies have pointed out the downside of optimism. In one study, when both pessimists and optimists observed a video of a crime about to happen, the pessimists saw the warning signs, while the optimists missed them. The researchers surmised that optimists tend to miss things that pessimists see, and could be poorer witnesses in a court of law.

Another downside of optimism: optimists, while living life in a cheerier manner, can also become more devastated when something bad happens. While pessimists may try to prepare for every possible worse case scenario, optimists can be caught off-guard and blindsided when something tragic happens.

Though the research does not prove the theory that optimism is better, still society tries to cajole the pessimist to think positively. There is even a type of counseling called Positive Psychology that teaches pessimists to be more upbeat. And yet there have been unforeseen consequences of Positive Psychology.

In a study, pessimists, who tended towards mild depression, were given an intensive program of thinking more positively. After the program was over, the participants were evaluated. It turns out that the pessimists were even more depressed after completing the program! This shows that their pessimistic attitude served a purpose in their lives (perhaps a form of self-protection) and, without it, they felt worse.

The point I am making is not that it is better to be a pessimist — or that it’s better to be an optimist. I think that that key is to know your own temperament, work with it as best as you can, and accept yourself as you are. If you do this, you will probably feel a lot happier!

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