Growing up in a family that never encountered a cliché it didn’t embrace, I was surrounded by positive thinking. There was a tea cozy that announced that “Every cloud has a silver lining” and, at some point, a chintzy plaque that read “When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemonade.” Yes, it had a lemon painted on it. So, my distrust of these upbeat mottos and mantras runs deep—rightly, as it happens.ofcneeko23m-milo-mcdowell

Putting a positive spin on things when life goes truly south and you’re reeling in pain is, science knows, preaching to the choir. Humans are actually hardwired not just to be optimistic but absurdly and insanely so. It’s even got a name: the optimism bias. It turns out that we are so fiercely set on being optimistic that we actually don’t pay attention to information that contradicts our optimism.  A study  by Tali Sharot and others demonstrated that there is actually a location in the brain for the optimism bias, the left interior frontal gryus (IFG). Negative information, they posited, is processed by the right IFG. When they disabled the left IFG with magnetic stimulation, essentially turning off the optimism bias, they found that people were more likely to pay attention to negative information and use it to change their behaviors. if this information is causing you to grip that embroidered pillow with the words “Everything happens for a reason” even more tightly, you need to listen up.

Yes, it’s true that thinking positively can be a good thing, acting as an inner cheerleader and motivator, when we are pursuing a realistic goal that meshes with our abilities and talents. But positive thinking can actually impede our emotional growth. It can keep us on a carousel we know, deep down, we need to exit. It can stop us from being happy. It can help us turn a blind eye to the toxic people in our lives. It may keep us from seeing that the goal we’ve set for ourselves is unrealistic and impossible to achieve.

Counterintuitive and counter-cultural? Yes, but based in science. And here’s how your “The glass is half full” thinking might be getting in your way.

  1. Feeds the power of intermittent reinforcement

As demonstrated by B.F. Skinner in a famous experiment involving hungry rats, we actually become more persistent when what we want only happens some of the time. This is the reason gamblers stay at the slot machines when they win every now and again, or a combination comes up that looks like a near win, and why people stay in lousy relationships. Skinner put three hungry rats in cages, each of which had a lever. In one cage, pushing the lever delivered food all the time, and the rat understood that and went about his business. In another cage, the lever produced no food and the rat understood that too. But in the third cage, the lever produced food randomly and that got the rat totally hooked. He stayed parked by the lever night and day.

When your partner or lover is nice to you or fills your needs and expectations now and again, your optimism kicks in and you start thinking, “Wow, we’ve turned a corner.” Of course, you haven’t because nothing fundamental has changed; it’s just your optimism and the power of intermittent reinforcement colluding to keep you stuck. Now and again does not a pattern make.

  1. Increases tolerance of abuse

Putting a positive spin on behavior by telling yourself that it wasn’t so bad or that it could always be worse can effectively keep you stuck in a toxic relationship and, unwittingly, makes you more accepting of the behavior. This is especially true of verbal and emotional abuse and the so-called positive spin that at least it wasn’t physical. Not. Be realistic about the situation you’re in and recognize that a positive spin can just be another eddy in a river of denial.

  1. Impairs your emotional intelligence

When there’s a crisis or you’re in emotional turmoil, positive thinking can actually get in the way of the work you need to do by permitting you to look away from the very painful issues you actually need to address. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger if your positive thinking is helping you avoid your feelings. An important part of emotional intelligence consists of being able to distinguish your emotions with some precision—knowing whether it’s shame or anger you’re experiencing, frustration or feeling abandoned—and finding support in clichés isn’t helpful. Learning how to manage your negative emotions instead of distracting yourself is a key to emotional health.

  1. Can give you a false sense of agency

It’s not just that humans are overly optimistic; they also tend to overstate and over-rate their abilities in just about every realm. It’s called the above-average effect (or sometimes The Lake Woebegon effect after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where all the kids are above-average) and when it’s combined with positive thinking and over-optimism, you may find yourself with a recipe for disaster as you pursue pipe dreams and utterly unrealistic goals. That inner cheerleader of yours may be leading you down the garden path.

Positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, you just have to face the fact that there’s nothing to be done about the lemon you’ve been handed except to trash it and move on with purpose.

 

Sharot, Tali, Ryote Kanai, David Marston, et. al., “Selectively altering belief formation in the human brain,” Nature Neuroscience (2011), vol.4, no. 11, 1475 ff.

Photograph by Milo McDowell. Copyright free.