Cognition

For Sound Mental Health, Think Again About Your Thinking

Both positive and negative thinking may be bad for you.

Posted Sep 17, 2010

You have surely heard a lot about positive thinking. Positive thinking gets good press. Everyone tells you to change your negative thoughts into positive ones. But don't believe the hype. Positive thinking isn't quite the winner it claims to be. Those who drive in the fast and exhilarating lane of positive thinking may easily veer into the ditch of wishful thinking or tumble over the cliff of self-delusion. Much of the recent economic trouble people are finding themselves in, for example, is due to their willingness to think positively, wishfully, delusionally about the rate of appreciation on the value of their homes. For sound mental health, the fundamental question is not whether a thought is negative or positive, but whether it is accurate.

Accurate thinking is important because we know today, through the pioneering work of psychologists such as Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck and others, that your thoughts--the beliefs, interpretations and assumptions you make about yourself and the world around you--can shape your feelings and actions. For example, if a friend passes you by on the street without saying hello, your reaction to that event will depend on how you choose to interpret it. If you come to believe that your friend has intentionally ignored you, then you are likely to feel certain feelings (such as anger, surprise, disappointment, or confusion). Later, when you meet this friend again, you are also likely to behave in certain, perhaps hostile, ways based on your belief that he ignored you on purpose. However, if instead you come to believe that your friend did not notice you passing by, or that he did not recognize you because you had lost weight recently, or that he had lost his eyesight in a terrible accident, then you are likely to feel and behave differently upon your next encounter. The event itself (your friend ignoring you) is not as important to your subsequent feelings and behavior as is your interpretation of the event.

Roughly sketched, our brain has two types of processes: control and automatic. Control processes are used to acquire new skills. They require conscious attention and are highly susceptible to interruption--think of the effort and concentration you had to summon when learning to drive, for example. Once a skill has been practiced, though, it shifts to an automatic process; as such, it does not require attention and is highly resistant to change. After some years of driving, for example, you can do it while listening to the radio, talking on the phone, eating a sandwich, and thinking about the weekend's golf outing, all at the same time.

These automatic processes we call habits. Habits are good in that, being automatic, resilient, and unconscious, they free our limited attentional resources to deal with novel stuff--a clear evolutionary advantage. But habits are good only to the extent that they are good habits. A bad habit spells trouble down the road. For example, everyone develops over time a habitual posture of sitting at the wheel. But if this posture is severely hunched over, backache is bound to emerge over time as a consequence.

Moreover, a certain habit that has served us well in the past may outstay its welcome. For example, if you used to take one way to work for many years, you can now drive to work without thinking about it at all. It's an automatic habit, and it has served you well. However, if tomorrow you receive a promotion and move to a new work location, then the old habit does not serve you well anymore. It will still be as easy as before to drive every morning to the old workplace, but it will not be beneficial to you and your new career!

Our thoughts are, in essence, internal behaviors. Throughout life, we acquire many "thought habits"--characteristic ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. Distorted thought habits will over time result in psychological pain, just as a distorted posture will result in physical pain. For example, if you've adopted a habit of thinking "I must have everyone's approval to be successful," then you are bound to spend your time trying to get everyone to like you. Your inevitable failure over time will cause you pain. But the real culprit, the real source of your suffering, is not your failure to become universally loved but your belief that becoming so is a requirement for success.

Pop psychology may urge you to replace negative thought habits with positive ones. But that just exchanges one distortion for another. What you need is to change distorted thinking, be it positive or negative, into accurate thinking.

Cognitive reappraisal is the process of replacing your distorted thought habits with healthy ones. The first step is to identify your maladaptive thought habits. In this step, you need to pay attention to your thinking and identify the automatic thoughts that come to your mind in a given situation. To that end it is useful, when you feel upset or anxious, to ask yourself: "What am I telling myself that is making me upset?" As you identify the automatic thought, you need to see it for what it is: a hypothesis, a guess--rather than a fact. If you think about an object, you have a thought, not an object. The first thought is not necessarily the right one. The first shoe you see in the store window is not necessarily the best one for you.

Once you have identified an automatic thought ("He didn't say hello because he doesn't like me anymore"), you can then take the next step in the process: generate alternatives to your initial, automatic interpretation. For example, when your friend passes you by without saying hello, your first, automatic thought is, "He doesn't like me anymore." Once you have identified this automatic thought, and reminded yourself that it is only a guess, not a fact, you can generate alternatives: your friend may not have noticed you; he may not have recognized you; the person you thought was your friend was not really him but someone who looks like him; he may have been on his way back from an eye exam and could not see well, and so on.

When you have generated some plausible alternative hypotheses, you can now progress to step three: look for evidence regarding which of the thoughts is most likely to be correct. What are some sources of evidence? You can think about past situations. Has this happened before with this guy? If you had just changed your appearance in some way, have other friends failed to recognize you since? Another source of evidence could of course be to ask the guy, when you see him next, what happened. You can ask if he were on that street that day. Does he have a twin brother, evil or otherwise? Additionally, you could talk to mutual friends to find out if he said something about you, if he had eye problems lately, and so on.

Once you have gathered all of the available evidence, you can take the last step: adopt the best, most plausible interpretation. For example, if you find out, talking to mutual friends, that the guy in question had actually died a month ago, and that his twin brother had flown in yesterday from Alabama to help care for their elderly mother, then the most plausible interpretation of why your friend did not say hello is that it was not him.

What you need to learn, in sum, is to treat your process of thinking with the same respect and attentiveness you regard a trip to the shoe store.

When you go to the shoe store to buy, say, a pair of running shoes, you do not buy the first pair you see. And you don't buy the same sneakers your parents picked for you when you were ten-years-old. You shop around. You try on a few pairs and you compare them on several criteria like fit, comfort, brand, style, price, value. And then you pick the pair that has the most evidence to recommend it. You pick the right running shoes for you now.

Well, your brain can be regarded as a thought store. Picking the wrong thought, like picking the wrong running shoe, will result in pain and discomfort (not to mention a waste of time and money). When you enter the thought store in your head, don't pick the first thought that comes to mind. First doesn't mean best. Take your time and shop around. Generate several possible thoughts and compare them on various criteria like probability, coherence, and constructiveness. Then pick the thought that has the most evidence to recommend it.

If you practice this process of cognitive reappraisal, it will become automatic, and will buffer you against much unnecessary and unwarranted emotional pain.

Life, after all, generates enough emotional pain that is both necessary and warranted.