By Ken Ward
Many writers extol the benefits of positive thinking, but few tell us of the disadvantages, and we hear even less about the benefits of negative thinking. They do not tell us we need a dash of negative thinking to season our thinking to avoid the extremes of positive thinking: unrealistic thinking, recklessness and positive apathy. They do not warn us that positive thinking alone -- without the balancing negative -- can lead to blunders in politics, business, education, wellbeing and health.
Yet other writers, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, do warn us that positive thinking led to many of the problems in America and in the Western world, such as the over-optimism about the Iraq War, and the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident. Furthermore, Positive Thinking books sometimes make claims contrary to science and common sense. They sometimes use the insidious trap in positive thinking called the 'white bear effect.' They often exploit the self-developer's unrealistic personal philosophy, particularly idealism, but ignoring realism and rationalism. The positive thinkers do not tell us that ultra-positive mentors may actually damage the ability of children to learn, even though psychologist Carol Dweck, for instance, has shown that in certain circumstances positive praise can have undesirable effects.
Furthermore, according to a number of researchers, such as Gabriele Oettingen, positive thinking without a negative balance hinders our ability and even our health. The craze for positive thinking overlooks the value of Negative Thinking. For instance, negative thinking can have unexpected positive effects on our memory, judgment and motivation. In business, some negative thinking -- a critical evaluation of plans, makes companies more successful by preparing them for unexpected problems, and encouraging managers to plan for every possibility. In this article, I argue that to be effective, we need a sprinkling of negative thinking to balance positive thinking and to encourage action. First let us look at the meanings of the words positive and negative, because this confusion can cause problems.
What do positive and negative mean?
The word positive has various dictionary meanings, which lead to confusion, hypnotic effects and contradiction. First we look at its intended meaning and examine how it is normally used by positive thinkers.
The word positive as used in 'positive thinking' suggests imagining in detail and with full confidence something we want. For instance, we imagine sitting in a car we desire, we feel the steering wheel, smell the leather and think 'This is mine.' The word positive here means that we think in detail of something being present, we think of owning it with confidence. In addition we use the word to mean something desirable. This use of 'positive' puts us in mind of a joke from the earlier days of positive thinking:
Son: Dad I think I'm going to fail this course.
Dad: Now, Son, be positive!
Son: OK, Dad. I'm certain I'm going to fail this course.
The father uses the word 'positive' to mean 'confident of some good result', but the son uses it in the sense of 'being clear and definite'. Both meanings are correct (exist in the dictionary)
Not surprisingly, we can sometimes be confused when reading the words positive and negative. For this reason they can be hard to understand because we do not know which meanings to apply. For instance, if we hear 'She is HIV negative', we know that the word negative means 'no disease was detected' and is a positive result in the sense it encourages a feeling of wellbeing. Things could get more confusing, though.
She could say, quite rationally, but at first confusing, 'I feel very positive about this negative result, and I am glad it wasn't positive.'
Because the word positive (and the word negative) can shift between different meanings, with one meaning implying 'good' and the other implying 'bad they have within them a hypnotic effect. And from the viewpoint of 'positive thinking' where you need to avoid the negative at all costs, we have the irony that even the word 'positive' sometimes conceals a negative meaning! That is, the idea of 'positive thinking' contains the seeds of its own destruction, because it requires the denial of the negative, but covertly contains it within its own definitions.
Barbara Ehrenreich and the Negative Power of Positive Thinking
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America claims that positive thinking -- from self-help guides to motivational speakers has dangerously weakened American so that Americans have stopped being realistic about the world around them leading to not only personal misery, but also to national failure.
First she distinguishes between positive thinking and happiness. That is, by opposing positive thinking, she is not opposing happiness. She says, "Positive thinking is a specific kind of ideology which says you have to act cheerful and optimistic and upbeat - no matter how you're feeling - if you want to get along in the world." That is, positive thinking tells us to try and disregard our feelings and be positive, with a warning that thinking negative will bring about just the results we do not want.
Ehrenreich says that the positive thinking movement seems to have arisen from Calvinism, and has become standard in some churches. It has become part of corporate culture making big business a big supporter of positive thinking in human resource management. Positive thinking has both a religious and corporate form. In the secular form the universe is portrayed as a big mail-order department waiting for our orders (positive or negative thoughts). In the religious version, God is said to want you to be rich -- God wants you to have a larger house. And you enlist him as a sort of personal assistant to get you those things you want. (But you have to make the payments and deal with creditors!)
The consequences are dire. Ehrenreich does not say that positive thinking is the only cause of the financial meltdown, but, she says, "Corporate decision makers were living in a bubble of forced optimism." She says that from interviewing insiders, corporate and Wall Street and finance industry insiders that to be too negative was to risk being fired. They feared being the bearer of bad news. They did not want to be the one who says, "This business plan is going to get us in big trouble." This is contrary to successful approaches to business planning, which require a search for possible problems and to plan how to handle them, and to monitor progress to detect problems.
She talks about George W. Bush, the cheerleader, whose positive thinking was detrimental to the nation, particularly with Iraq and the optimistic predictions of the welcome when the American troops invaded. Those officials with doubts were outcast. Once again we see the fear that people have of presenting a negative scenario: in business and government because they fear being sacked, and in secular beliefs, because they fear that their negative thinking will bring about the very thing they fear. But as we will see below in this article, the opposite is true -- negative thinking is crucial to prevent unwanted things occurring.
Unless we utilize the power of negative thinking in business and in our personal lives, we may suffer the opposites of what positive thinking promises. For instance, governments that do not utilize negative thinking will end up with more Vietnams and Iraqs. And management that do not utilize negative thinking will end up with more 'three mile island accidents', and bank meltdowns.
Managers can use positive thinking to manipulate their workforce. They tell people who are being laid off, that it's really not a bad thing. It's a great opportunity, and whatever happens to them is because of their attitude anyway. So, isn't it great -- you've been laid off and now you can really do well in life! Positive thinking also makes claims that are contrary to science and common sense. We mention the work of scientists Carol Dweck and Gabriele Oettingen later to show how evidence based research shows how positive fantasy can get you what you don't want!
Hidden Dangers of 'The Secret'
The book, 'The Secret' is a best seller which attracts those who wish to attain whatever they desire by thinking about it. The theory behind the book is that what we experience and have in life and who we are is determined, not by the laws of nature, but by our thinking. Whatever we experience, whether it is good or bad is caused by our thoughts. And the solution to our problem is to think positively, and not think negatively, or we will bring upon ourselves the very things we do not want.
Positive thinkers say that whatever good comes into our lives --wealth, health, love -- is the result of our positive thinking. And whatever bad occurs -- poverty, illness, broken relationships -- comes from our negative thinking. Therefore, anyone who becomes rich or becomes healthy, or gains love, does so because of their positive thoughts. And those who become poor, sick, lose their loved ones, do so as a result of negative thinking. Victims of tsunami, plague, war are victims, not because of events, but because they allowed negative thoughts to occur. And what is worse, the positive thinkers claim that is, it is their fault.
They also claim, that in order to be thin you think 'thin thoughts', avoid looking at fat people and 'Ask-Believe-Receive' then you're guaranteed to lose weight, without actually doing anything about it. By doing the above steps, Byrne, the author of the Secret, claims she lost over 20 pounds and now maintains her "perfect weight of 116 pounds" and claims "I can eat whatever I want". While it is reasonable (although probably still false) to believe that a certain kind of thinking might enable us to eat just enough food to meet our needs, it is incredible that a miracle occurs and the laws of biology are suspended.
Even more disturbingly, a woman in The Secret DVD says she cured herself of breast cancer by "thinking" herself well in three months - and without the aid of radiation or chemotherapy. "I believed in my heart that I was healed. I saw myself as if cancer was never in my body. One of the things I did to heal myself was to watch really funny movies," she says in the video. Of course, we do not know whether this is a claim that her visualizing made her cancer go (and cancers do go into remission and reappear) or whether watching funny movies was effective (there is some evidence that laughter is indeed good medicine). However, what is disturbing is that there is a raft of evidence showing that positive fantasies hinder recovery in medical conditions. Furthermore, other research indicates that the presence of comforting daydreams is a predictor of cancer spread. Any suggestion that people with medical conditions should use positive fantasy alone (without the balancing negative realism), and therefore fail to deal with the reality of their condition by following their doctor's advice is something that would, according to research, endanger these people.
Many of the claims made by positive thinking are not sustainable. Even worse, people are told they must not think of the negative. Apart from the fact that the negative needs to be carefully considered, it is impossible, as we shall see next, to avoid negative thoughts by suppressing them. There is either an 'obsession effect' or a rebound effect.
Believing You Must Not Think Negatively Can Rebound
The Positive Thinking movement tells us we must never think negative. The irony is that suppressing these thoughts seems to cause them to repeat. Because positive thinking tells us we must suppress negative thoughts -- even though suppression makes us obsessed. This makes the teachers of positive thinking can always appear right -- the believer knows they have a battle wrestling with negative thoughts and they might believe, 'If only I could drive out these negative thoughts, I'd get what I want.' This, however, will always fail. There is either an 'obsession effect', wherein we cannot stop thinking about something we try not to think about -- it won't go away. Or there is the 'rebound effect', wherein, after successfully pushing the negative out of our minds, the negative thoughts pour back in! One of the sure ways to get someone to think of something is to tell them not to. This is the 'white bear effect' which, as we will see, fascinated some Russian writers.
The White Bear Effect
The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: wrote "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."
Another Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) once challenged his little brother to stand in a corner until he could stop thinking of a white bear, thereby causing the poor boy to think of little else.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner researched this topic and wrote a book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession and the Psychology of Mental Control. In one experiment, he asked subjects to think about whatever they wished, except white bears! If they did, they were to ring a bell. Wegner was deafened by the constant ringing! The subjects did not think of the bear all the time, but it kept popping into their minds.
Telling people to suppress a thought, as Tolstoy did with his little brother, puts them in a trap where the thought continues to appear. The more they try to suppress it, the more it recurs. By telling someone not to think of a negative thought, we can guarantee that they will do so.
When we become obsessed with certain thoughts, what we shouldn't do is to suppress them (otherwise, they will recur): we should allow them to appear and learn to confront them. Allowing ourselves the luxury of negative thoughts is the better way to handle them.
The American author John Steinbeck in The Winter of Our Discontent puts it this way:
Mike heard me out, staring at a spot between my eyes. 'Yeah!' he said. 'I know about that. Trouble is, a guy tries to shove it out of his head. That don't work. What you got to do is kind of welcome it.'
This sums it up nicely. In positive thinking, this effect is tragic because the believer tries and tries to avoid the negative, but it keeps coming back. There are other techniques picked up from the positive thinkers, including positive praise, which, as we shall see, may not have the effects we expect.
Perils of Positive Praise
Carol Dweck claims that we have either a fixed or a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset are less open to 'negative ideas' than those with a growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset are happy to receive negative feedback and to handle it -- it's a fun challenge -- and therefore they grow. Those with a fixed mindset, in comparison, fear anything that might challenge their self-image of being, say, 'intelligent'. The growth mindset is encouraged by telling children 'they worked hard', rather than telling them that they are intelligent. The researchers found that those children praised by being told they are 'intelligent', or in other contexts, told they are 'beautiful' leads them to avoid situations where there 'beauty' or 'intelligence' might be tested. Instead of striving to succeed, they give up easily, and even avoid anything that might challenge them. By thoughtlessly using positive thinking, we may be ruining students ability to cope with learning, and ruin others ability, in say work, to perform well. Even so, we may find that an individual's personal philosophy may, in part be to blame for their inability and problems.
The growth mindset also seems to improve management ability. When managers were taught a growth mindset, they were more willing to coach employees and the quality of their developmental coaching became higher. Also, managers with a growth mindset actually sought more negative feedback from their subordinates. They wanted to learn how to improve their management techniques and were not threatened by the idea of hearing some negative things about themselves.
Our Philosophy May Be Holding Us Back
Certain kinds of positive thinking encourage unrealistic thinking. Those who think unrealistically become inconsistent in their lives. For instance, those learned professors who claim there is no objective truth seem to be the most litigious ones, suing whomever they think has breached their copyright. Such people are a source of amusement in the philosophical community. Similarly, those politicians who adopt a lenient attitude towards criminals seem to change in an instant when they or their loved ones are victims. Because they held beliefs that are not supported by reality and experience, because they were living in a fantasy world, when the big bad reality pops up, they sometimes respond in ways completely at odds with their previous beliefs. I recall a clinical psychologist telling me that after his house was burgled, he found himself asking the police how he could get a gun! This was completely at odds with his previously caring and forgiving attitude.
This unrealistic positive thinking depends on a kind of philosophical idealism wherein the thinker believes that there is nothing that exists apart from their own minds. And thinking in a certain way changes the very nature of the world. The downside of this is that they do not take the necessary action to deal with issues, but use magical thinking to try and change their world. Of course, such thinking leaves them with less than they would have had without wasting their time in fantasy.
The sick person who fantasies getting well may, in fact, be less likely to recover or recover more slowly than those who take practical action. And those with financial problems are more likely to overcome them if they take action. In these cases, positive thinking leads to harmful risk taking, by avoiding common sense precautions, and dreaming and waiting for their problems to solve themselves by magic.
Some personal philosophies however are helpful. These are realism and rationalism. Realism is dealing with the world as it is, rather than trying to deal with it magically or idealistically. That is, collecting facts as necessary, or observing closely to understand, and taking sensible action. While realism in this sense if the most appropriate method of thinking, there are times when realism can't be applied. Sometimes we do not know the relevant facts but we need to do something.
Of course, we do not always have to do something about a problem -- we can wait until we are ready -- but sometimes we need to take some action, or even to say something, even provisionally. Then we use rationalism. Rationalism, in this sense means we use logic and a reasonable, unbiased guess to understand the situation we are facing. For instance, if we were waiting for someone who promised to meet us at a particular time but was late, we could use realism if we knew, for instance, the person was reliable and would come or would phone us. Also we might know the person is always late and they would arrive in, say 15 minutes. If we could not be realistic -- because we do not have any relevant facts -- we could be rational, and decide to wait 10 minutes or so, and then assume the person isn't coming and act appropriately. The 'waiting 10 minutes' is just an arbitrary and reasonable guess what is a good leeway to allow, and allows us to bring order to a situation in which we have no other information. We can look at our watch and if 10 minutes has passed we leave, but we could equally rationally have decided to wait 30 minutes. In any case, it would be irrational to wait 2 hours!
An idealist in the same situation might visualise the other person arriving and by distracting themselves, in this case the visualizing might serve to amuse them while they waited. But in a worst case, they could stand there visualizing for hours, while the rational or realistic thinker had long given up and made the best of the situation. Sadly, this is often the case when we use positive thinking in an idealistic manner -- we feel good dreaming while the world goes to pieces around us -- all for the want of a reasonable philosophy and common sense. And all for the want of appropriate action.
As we noted with the work of Carol Dweck, the work of Gabriele Oettingen, considered next, shows how positive fantasy, in the absence of reality and negative thinking can lead to failure in education, weight-loss, health and relationships.
Positive Thoughts May Be Holding You Back
Sometimes positive visualizations can make us more likely to fail. Lien Pham at the University of California asked one group of students to visualise getting an 'A' in an important midterm exam. Compared with those who weren't asked to do anything special, the visualizers did worse. Surprisingly, spending only a few minutes a day visualizing success decreases the motive to work for an important exam, and produces lower grades. This question was taken up by Gabriele Oettingen.
Writing in Peter Gollwitzer's Psychology of Action, she asks whether positive fantasy increases success. She concluded that it sometimes makes things worse.
Consider this example. Twenty-five obese women weighting an average of 233 pounds have enrolled in a weight reduction program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. They are asked to imaging that after completing the program they are invited to a pool party. They report their fantasies and rate them as positive or negative. They also rate their figure. Suppose one says, "I'd eat all I could - and eat everyone else's left-overs ... I'd probably still be over-weight." And contrast this with one who reports, "I'd be very good and be careful about what I'd eat... I'd show off my slim body" Which would be more likely to lose weight? In the real study, those women with negative fantasies lost 11 kilograms more than those with positive fantasies did. This is probably surprising to most of us. Oettingen notes, "Apparently images of getting slim and resisting food temptations hindered weight loss." But how do positive fantasies affect other aspects of health? Does positive visualization alone help us heal faster?
In 1995, Oettingen studied the effects of fantasies in children with cancer. From this study, she concluded "Positive fantasies predicted a less favorable recovery rate ... Effective recovery from cancer demanded taking action (complying with medical demands and coping with painful procedures). Positive fantasies suppressed these because future recovery was perceived to occur effortlessly." In another study, in 2002, Oettingen related positive fantasies and recovery after hip replacement surgery. She found, as before, that positive fantasy was a hindrance to recovery.
What happens when we add some negatives to the mix?
She studied positive and negative thinking in relationships, in professional success and in health. Overall, it seems that positive fantasy alone hinders progress. Negative thinking seems to be more effective, but when she had people combine thinking about the benefits as well as the problems, they did better than those who thought of the disadvantages. Both groups did better than those who thought of the positive alone. Thinking of both the positive and the negative also benefitted those undergoing hip surgery. They recovered faster than those with positive fantasies alone.
The effects of positive thinking can be even more serious. In 1987, Morgens Jensen studied 52 women with breast cancer and reported that neoplastic spread was associated with, among other things, reduced expression of negative affect, and comforting daydreaming. This too indicates the hindrance of repressing the negative and of positive fantasy.
An important issue that arises is how we deal with negative thoughts. Attempting to suppress them seems to make them more likely to occur. This is dealt with next.
Balance between positive and negative thinking
According to Robert Schwarz and Gregory Garamoni in their States of Mind Model, proposed a positive-negative mix in thought for normal people was in the ratio of the golden section. That is, 2/3 positive and 1/3 negative. The dose of caution acts as a remedy to overconfidence. This idea has, as we have seen, been shown to be supported by the work of Gabriele Oettingen.
While rational and realistic thinking is supported by a mix of positive and negative thinking, it seems that there are positive benefits of negative thinking and even negative moods.
Positive Benefits of Negative Moods
Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales, discovered that people in a negative mood were more critical and paid more attention to details than those in a positive mood. They are less prone to making wrong judgments, more accurate as witnesses and more able to produce effective and persuasive communications. A positive mood tended to produce creativity, flexibility, cooperation, but also reliance on mental shortcuts. A negative mood tended to make people more attentive, careful in their thinking and to put more attention on the external world.
Forgas claimed that sadness produced strategies that were more suitable to dealing with demanding situations.
Subjects who had watched a sad film were more likely to disbelieve urban myths and rumors compared with those who had watched a happy film. Those in a bad mood were less likely to make snap decisions based on racial or religious prejudices and were less likely to make mistakes in recalling events they had witnessed. Also people wrote in a more concrete and tolerant, and more successful in their communications.
Suppressing Negative Emotions Can Lead To Greater Understanding and Growth
Using evidence based techniques, Gerald Amada argues that while negative emotions may be difficult to experience, they lead to personal understanding and to growth. Close relationships lead naturally to intense emotions.
Repressing these emotions leads to:
Suppression can arise for several reasons:
- eating disorders,
Amada argues that negative emotions can be beneficial, or have beneficial consequences. For instance, one woman challenged the law on medical care because of her anger about the charges she experienced after her husband died. Dickens used his rage over the oppressive conditions of his childhood to write timeless novels. Amada's basic claim is that negative thoughts can be transformed into personally fulfilling and socially constructive activity. Of course, some negative feelings such as pain have a practical result.
- believing that if they experience hatred to someone, this will magically harm them,
- fear of losing control and
- religious teaching .
The Positive Side To Pain And Other Negative Emotions
While positive emotions are important in personal growth, negative emotions are also important. Negative emotions have a role similar to that of pain, telling us of the existence of a problem and where it is. While pain tends to be more specific, negative emotions can often guide us. According to natural selection, those parts of us that are unnecessary are removed. On this basis, it seems that negative emotions and feelings have a role, perhaps even an important and crucial role in our wellbeing.
It is helpful in understanding to consider the role of pain. While pain is an unwanted sensation, with a bit of thought we would never wish to eliminate the pain mechanism. Those who do not experience pain suffer serious damage to their bodies because they do not get the feedback telling them something is wrong. Pain is not the issue -- it is the signal that there is something wrong and it needs to be handled.
Positive emotions motivate us to do something and negative emotions cause us to hold back. Both types of emotions can be wrong -- we might feel enthusiastic to do something that we later regret, and we might feel reluctant and unsure about something which later we learn is something good for us. But our emotions are often a good guide. If we manage to ignore negative emotions we may be doing the same thing when we ignore a warning pain, and continue doing something that isn't in our best interest. While we should not allow our emotions to be the final deciders of what we do, we should investigate them and determine why we feel as we do in relation to something we might do.
Just as we numb our bodies when we take pain killers for pain, so we numb our minds when we ignore negative emotions.
Physical pain is often quite specific about where the problem lies -- a sore toe indicates a toe problem -- but a negative emotion might not be so easy to fathom. For instance, we might feel negative towards someone who seems alright and this may be because we have picked up nonverbal body signals subconsciously. Although we do not know we feel negative, our minds do know, and they are trying to warn us.
It seems that the more we respect our emotions and be open to what they are telling us, the more accurate and controlled they become, so we less frequently feel irrational emotions and our feelings become more reliable.
When we are moved to do something, we may do so because the goal is attractive. We seek some desirable outcome or situation. Other times, we take action not so much because we desire the goal as because we do not like the present situation. For instance, a student studying a subject might be doing so because they enjoy studying and it is what they want to do. On the other hand, the student might not like the subject, nor like studying, but does not want to flunk out of school. In this case the motivation is to escape the undesirable consequences of not studying -- flunking out. In life we often find ourselves doing things because we like them, and also doing things because we have to do them -- for our job, or because we think they are important. We have a mix of positive and negative motivations.
Similarly, when we are motivating others, we might be positive, saying "You can do this," but we might also bring in negative motivation by saying, "If we don't succeed, then ..." mentioning the negative consequences of failure.
Different people, and the same person at different times or in different situations might show a preference for positive motivation or a preference for negative motivation. For instance, a salesperson might love selling but really find paperwork a chore. She sells because she loves it, and does the paperwork because she has to. However we experience motivation, to attain our goals we need to take some action.
Positive thinking implies acceptance of the present and taking action, putting aside negative thoughts. Positive thinking needs to be a way of life. Avoid thinking of out-of-reach things but acknowledge the good in the present. Do things step by step.
Exaggerated positive thinking leads to lowered awareness and delusions: false sense of growth, due to lowered awareness. We need to trust our intelligence: self-trust, awareness and fearlessness. Unchecked positive thinking has no grounds in reality.
While self trust may lead to failure, it always leads to learning and personal progress. Following the herd leads to getting an inappropriate job, going into debt and gaining weight!
Self trust is particularly important when major life decisions occur-- choosing a mate, a career and a lifestyle. It leads to development.
Awareness is necessary for intelligence: when you lower your awareness you miss important facts that might have helped you. Anything we don't like is writen off. Awareness of our weaknesses however, means we can avoid activities that we cannot do or we can work on improving our weakness. Being aware might make us miserable, but ignoring problems until it is too late makes us even more miserable.
Talking to members of the opposite sex, starting a business, talking in public may be scary, but such fears are usually not rational. The solution isn't to deceive ourselves about our fears, but to understand how they derive from a misunderstanding of reality, and by understanding reality better we are happier and more able.
While we might look to the stars to inspire us on our journey, we should also use a torch to illuminate the dark and negative. We should encourage others to express their doubts and misgivings -- both in case we have genuinely overlooked something and to answer people's concerns and make them more motivated and positive.
How to Harness the Power of Negative Thinking
While positive thinking has desirable consequences, it seems that this is not so unless it is mixed with a little negative thinking. We have seen that children brought up by positive thinking mentors lack the ability to deal with things when they go wrong. They aren't able to cope when everything goes pear shaped!
The positive thinkers teach us we must succeed, but while it is possible we might be able to achieve anything we like in life, we certainly cannot attain everything. This means we must always fail in some things, even if this is just failing to deal with important matters because other, more important things claim our attention. And we might also fail, at least at first, in our main objectives. It seems that many ultimately successful people spent most of their lives in failure. If we cannot deal with those times when things do not go well, then we experience additional problems due to our inability to cope.
Those who practice negative thinking are more able to handle difficult situations. This is clearly true in the case of soldiers, doctors and police who have been trained to deal with situations that would make us collapse in fear or panic. For some people, it is easier to write a list of things they don't want or want to be rid of, than to write a list of what they want.
Thinking "I've had enough of this," or "This has to stop," or even "I can't stand it anymore," can lead us to solve our problems and pursue happiness much better than assuming everything will go well, provided we accept that WE have to do something about our problems, and not expect the universe or god to do it for us. We decide what we don't want and take the flip side -- what we do want.
There is a certain type of beauty in negative thinking in that it gives us access to that primordial centre we all know is within ourselves - that raw, dark power that we often fear to tap into and access, because we feel we cannot control it. The idea here is that we decide that we won't put up with any more of what we do not want, and take the action to get what we do want.
Illuminating the Negative to Enhance the Power of Negative Thinking in Business
Negative thinking is also considered important in business. For instance, David Corbin claims that in business it is crucial that managers allow for negative issues, including confrontation and bringing up negative matters. Successful businesses, he claims, need to encourage a culture of open expression of positive and negative ideas. This makes the organisation open to possible threats. Managers who have constructed a plan need to review the plan on the assumption it is flawed.
Dr. Charles Kepner and Dr. Benjamin Tregoe researched breakdowns in decision making at the Strategic Air Command in the 1950s. They found that Air Force officers who used a logical process to collect, organize and interpret information before taking action were more successful than others, irrespective of rank. They carried out experiments on groups and concluded that unexpected problems are inevitable. In this case, it seemed rational to do something about preventing them or reducing their impact. In the present world, this seems horrific to many managers who follow the positive thinking idea. Yet KT's processes are successfully used by millions of people world-wide.
Successful people in business and management, need to add a dose of negative thinking in order to succeed. Attitudes, such as the Titanic attitude wherein the belief that the ship is unsinkable is so strong, insufficient life boats are provided -- with consequent disaster. In more recent times, we have the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident, and more recently the over-optimism of the Iraq War. In business, we have the banking crisis. With every plan, we need to spend time playing devil's advocate and find out everything that might go wrong. If we can detect if things are going wrong in the plan, we can fix them in a timely manner.
We have seen that a dash of negative thinking (more accurately a positive-negative balance of 2:1) is necessary to season our thinking and help us avoid the extremes of negative thinking: unrealistic thinking and positive apathy. We have considered evidence that positive thinking alone can have serious consequences in politics, business, education, wellbeing and health. For instance, Barbara Ehrenreich has claimed that positive thinking has led to many of the problems in America and in the Western world. Positive thinking (the secret) makes promises that are contrary to science and common sense. For instance, research indicates that an over-concentration on the positive is ineffective, or even harmful.
In addition, positive thinking has an insidious trap called the 'white bear effect.' By suppressing, either negative thoughts intensify, or we get a rebound effect. We also looked at evidence that positive thinking is often allied with the individual's personal philosophy, particularly idealism as opposed to realism and rationalism. Even well-meaning and logical positive thinkers can be led astray. Being too positive may actually damage the ability of children to learn. Carol Dweck, for instance, has shown that positive praise can have undesirable effects. This effect is also noted in managers and others who have a fixed, rather than a growth mindset.
Furthermore, according to a number of researchers, such as Gabriele Oettingen, too much positive thinking can affect our ability and even our health. In contrast with the craze for positive thinking, the value of Negative Thinking is often overlooked. For instance, we may be surprised to discover that negative thinking can have positive effects -- improving our memory, judgment and motivation. In business, some negative thinking -- a critical evaluation of plans, can make companies more successful by bringing into awareness unexpected problems, and encouraging managers to plan for every possibility. Overall, to be effective, it seems we need a sprinkling of negative thinking to balance positive thinking and to take action.
In contrast with positive thinking, mindfulness embraces the negative rather than trying to suppress it. Reference is always made to the current reality, retaining an objective neutrality toward its state of being, and differentiating actual reality from both negative and positive interpretations. These new approaches, added to our current knowledge of self development, will accelerate progress and understanding in our personal and spiritual development, now and in the future.
This objective, reality-based and mindful approach to self development is central to the approach I take on my own website, Freeing the Mind, hosted by Trans4mind. It is also integral to the philosophy of the courses offered by Trans4mind. If you do these courses you should expect to see stable improvements in your life skills and abilities at work. You will have better judgment, increased mental speed and will power, better self-expression, the ability to study effectively and recall what you have learned, more creative insights, and confidence in your capacity to achieve your personal goals in life.