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The problem of positive thinking

Self-affirming statements actually make some people feel worse
Deflated smiley face balloon. (Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth)

Updated March 29, 2018

Canadian scientists have some bad news for those in the self-help business: positive thinking can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse about themselves. Joanne V. Wood, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo who co-authored a 2009 article on the subject with John W. Lee (University of Western Ontario) and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic (University of New Brunswick), spoke with Maclean’s about why self-affirming mantras such as “I am a lovable person” may actually do more damage than good.

Q: Tell me a bit about your studies?
A: We identified people who were low in self-esteem and high in self-esteem. We invited them into the lab and assigned them randomly to one of two conditions. In both conditions, they were asked to write down their thoughts and feelings. In one condition, in addition to that writing task, they were asked to repeat “I am a lovable person.” We found that those with high self-esteem were slightly better off in the positive self-statement condition than in the other condition. They were a little bit happier. We found the opposite effect for the other group. People with low self-esteem who repeated the positive self-statement were actually lower in mood and worse in their feelings about themselves than in the condition where they didn’t repeat the positive self-statement.

Q: Did you do things beyond that?
A: In another study, we instructed people to then focus on the statement “I am a lovable person.” In one condition they were told they could write down ways that it was true of them and not true of them. In the other, they were told to focus only on ways that were true of them. Again, it had the opposite effect for people with low self-esteem than you might expect. If they were low in self-esteem and were required to focus only on how they were a lovable person, they were worse off.

Q: Why did people with low self-esteem feel worse after repeating the statement?
A: We think they thought about the positive self-statement and then thought contradictory thoughts. So they might have had thoughts about ways in which they weren’t lovable, [which] overwhelmed the positive thoughts.

Q: What about in the case of people with high self-esteem who felt better after saying the statement?
A: I think they enjoyed thinking positive thoughts and it gave them a little boost. It wasn’t that big, but it’s interesting that the positive self-statements seemed to work for people who don’t need them.

Q: How does your finding fit in with the way we put so much emphasis on positive thinking?
A: It suggests that for many people it doesn’t work. I’ve heard from people saying ‘I’ve been reading self-help books for 10 years and repeating positive statements has not helped me.’ They’ve said, ‘I’m so sick of my friends and family telling me to focus on the positive because it doesn’t work for me.’ Some have gone so far as to say that the emphasis we have in our society on thinking positively puts pressure on people and it’s unrealistic.

Q: Are there other options for people who feel that positive thinking doesn’t work for them?
A: Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about how to improve self-esteem. People tend to feel better about themselves when they’re in a positive mood. There is one self-help book I’d recommend by Sonja Lyubomirsky [a psychologist at the University of California] called The How of Happiness, because it’s based on research. Most self-help books are not based on any research whatsoever.

Q: What are they based on?
A: They’re based on personal experience, or something that seems to make intuitive sense. It makes sense that if you say positive things you’re going to feel better. That’s the importance of research, really showing whether or not these sorts of things help. [Lyubomirsky’s] book focuses on documented ways in which people can increase their happiness.

Q: Besides the book, are there other suggestions for people who feel positive thinking isn’t an effective tool for them?
A: There’s very little research showing what will help people’s self-esteem, but one study I know of found that people who have been in a loving, supportive relationship have improved their self-esteem. So I think if you can find a loving, supportive partner that’s probably the best possibility for your self-esteem.

Q: Does it have to be a romantic partner, or do family and friends work too?
A: The research I’m talking about only involved romantic partners. I would think it would have to be someone really close to you.

Q: If positive thinking doesn’t work for so many people, why is there so much emphasis on it? Self-help books are rolling off the presses.
A: I know, I know! For most people it does have this intuitive appeal. They think it should work. And it seems like a pretty easy way to improve self-esteem. There’s a mix of good intentions by the people writing them, a lack of knowledge about the importance of research, and an eagerness to make money.