7 Ways Your Negative Thoughts Can Help You

Research shows why it may be best to imagine the worst.

Posted Oct 23, 2014

Anytime a particular idea gets a bit too popular, it is going to get taken down a notch. American society has for years been totally preoccupied with happiness, positive thinking, optimism, romantic love, and all that cheery stuff. Many psychologists have made careers out of studying these things—and a few book authors have hit the jackpot with them. But now, more and more people are asking whether that positivity is really all it's cracked up to be. Isn't there a place for negativity and pessimism, and even sadness?

Yes, there is. Two recent books offer research-based arguments for what's good about negativity: Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener's The Upside of Your Dark Side, and Gabriele Oettigen's Rethinking Positive Thinking. Julie Norem's book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, though not new, is also relevant to the discussion. All have been getting media attention. Here are some of the authors' insights about what's so good about negative thinking and feeling, plus a few relevant findings from the psychology of deception:

  1. If you feel too relaxed and happy and dreamy, you may not be all that motivated to get things done. As the Atlantic paraphrased one of Oettigen's points, "a cheery disposition and good attitude can zap the motivation needed to mobilize and strategize….dreaming isn't doing."

  2. An excerpt from Kashdan and Biswas-Diener's book, published in New York magazine, was aptly titled, "Grumpy People Get the Details Right." As the authors noted, "Negative emotions like anxiety and suspiciousness can act like an attentional funnel that narrows the mind's eye to important details."

  3. They also pointed to research showing that "people prone to depressed moods also tend to notice more details," particularly in facial expressions. Julie Lane and I found something similar in a pair of studies we produced, showing that mildly depressed people were especially sensitive to false reassurances and phoniness. Sometimes happy people are more easily fooled.

  4. Maybe we should not be trying too hard to be all smiley-faced ourselves. As Kashdan and Biswas-Diener noted, "A furrowed brow or frown warns people off when you aren't in the mood (and sometimes you're not in the mood)."

  5. A New York Times story on The Upside of Your Dark Side referenced research by Rebecca Mitchell on the upside of negative feelings in the workplace: "[A] little bit of negativity at work can keep people from agreeing too quickly and instead encourage them to focus on getting it right."

  6. In her book, Norem explains what's so good about a style she calls defensive pessimism. If that's your approach, you tend to imagine worst-case scenarios when you have something important in the works (such as a paper or a presentation). How is that a good thing? If it motivates you to think of the many specific things that could go wrong, then take steps to avoid them. People who do that "end up performing better than if they didn't use the strategy." (Want to know if you are a defensive pessimist? Take this test.)

  7. Romantic love is the subject of lots of syrupy odes, but it may not be such a great thing when it comes to knowing when someone is lying to you. In fact, sometimes perfect strangers are better at knowing when someone is lying than that person's romantic partner is.