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The power of positive thinking; put in perspective

You're thinking happy thoughts, so why are you upset?

Think happy thoughts is common wisdom that many people rely on for getting through feelings of depression, and painful or difficult situations. Often, people try to be happy when they're not; hoping that they will become the happy person they're impersonating.

This folk wisdom is backed up by science-to a point. Volumes of research have shown that how we present ourselves affects the way others perceive us, as well as the way we view ourselves. For example, a typically unhappy man might see himself as happier after enjoying an evening out with the guys, who will then also see him as happier. Research on self-presentation spans social and developmental psychology, sports psychology, organizational behavior and management, marketing, political science, and sociology. It was made popular in Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday life (1959). However, when considering how you shape your self-view, there are limits to what you will believe about yourself, no matter how you behave or what you tell yourself. In fact, trying to force yourself to be happier can backfire.

Dalgleigh, Yiend, Schweizer, & Dunn (Emotion, 2009) recently illustrated this point in research that directed subjects to think about upsetting events in their lives. Subjects were more distressed when directed to suppress their emotions than they were when they were not given that instruction. In other words, they felt less distressed when they just let themselves be upset.

In thinking about this study, it occurred to me that the essential problem for these individuals was probably that they were trying to tell themselves something that they really didn't believe. Telling themselves that they weren't upset was a story that they knew wasn't true. This caused tension (what psychologists call cognitive dissonance) within them; and this tension was distressing-adding more negativity to what they were already feeling.

So, the lesson to be learned? You can make yourself happy by thinking "happy thoughts" only when a "happy" response is at least somewhat believable. But, if you can truly only see yourself as someone who would be upset in your situation, then thinking happy thoughts (and suppressing unhappy ones) will, paradoxically, cause you greater distress.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.

Illustration by Maria Myklevoll.

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