Positive thinking is a valuable tool that can help you overcome obstacles, deal with pain, and reach new goals. The benefits of looking on the bright side have been clearly documented. Research studies have discovered that optimistic people tend to enjoy increased marital satisfaction, better physical health, and higher incomes.
The buzz about the benefits of positive thinking, however, has led to some potentially harmful misunderstanding about the concept.
Positive Thinking vs. Unrealistic Expectations
Focusing on the positive becomes self-destructive when people establish unrealistic expectations. Just as it's not healthy to think overly negative thoughts, exaggeratedly positive thoughts can be equally detrimental. If you overestimate how much positive impact a change will have on your life, you may end up disappointed when reality doesn't live up to the fantasy.
For example, someone may imagine that reaching a goal will lead to unlimited happiness. By saying things like, "I'm going to focus on all the positive things that will happen when I lose weight—I'll have more friends, earn more money, and be able to meet the person of my dreams," an individual romanticizes the likely outcome. Realistic expectations, rather than overly optimistic ones, are more helpful in attaining—and maintaining—goals.
There's even research that suggests thinking too positively about your chance of success may decrease your motivation to achieve a goal. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that the most positive fantasies about the future predicted poor achievement—when people imagined an idealized future, they actually had less energy and motivation to turn that fantasy into a reality.
Positive Thoughts Don't Possess Magical Powers
Somewhere along the line, positive thinking seems to have been confused with magical thinking. There's a notion that if you think positively enough, you can make anything happen, but all the positive thinking in the world won't deliver good fortune or prevent tragedy from striking.
When someone says a job interview didn't go well, his family may respond by saying, "Think good thoughts," as if thinking he'll get the job will somehow influence the interviewer's decision. Although positive thinking certainly serves many purposes—like helping us cope with tough circumstances—optimism can't change the reality of a situation.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't hold out hope or look on the bright side. But deluding yourself into believing, "If I think positively enough, everything will work out," isn't realistic. Idealism doesn't prevent problems.
Positive Thinking Can't Replace Positive Action
You wouldn't get into a car and say, "I'm not going to wear my seatbelt today. Instead, I'm just going to think positively about arriving at my destination safely." But that's exactly how some people go about their lives. They seem to believe that positive thinking will make good things happen.
A business owner may say, "I'm just going to think positively about our revenue for the second half of the year," or a student might say, "I'm going to ace my exam." If they stop short of combining their positive thinking with positive action, they're unlikely to see positive results.
Overconfidence isn't the same as healthy positive thinking. Overestimating your ability to reach your goals could prevent you from taking the necessary steps to set yourself up for success. As a result, your "positive thinking" could backfire and leave you feeling unprepared for the reality of the situation.
Establish a Positive Yet Realistic View of the World
Optimism and hope serve helpful purposes. But there needs to be a balance between positive thinking and willfully deluding ourselves into believing everything will be perfect. Here are some strategies to help develop a "realistic yet optimistic" outlook:
Hopefully, positive thinking is just one of many tools you possess to help you reach your goals. But if your entire plan for the future rests on imagining an optimal outcome, you may be disappointed. Combine positive thinking with positive action and you'll be more likely to get positive results.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker and an internationally recognized expert on mental strength. Her book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears, and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success provides strategies and exercises to build mental strength. Watch the video trailer below to learn about her personal story behind the book.