How many times has this happened to you?
You feel as if your world could collapse any minute.
There’s mounting stress from home, work, and family.
Maybe your behind on bills and can’t switch jobs due to the economy.
Maybe you’re upside down on your mortgage and have mounting bills from a trip to the emergency department.
Maybe you’ve just experienced a terrible loss recently. It’s possible all these things have happened throughout the course of your life and it feels like you never get a break.
So how can so many people walk around smiling all the time and tell you to ‘Just Think Positive!’?
You just want to punch them in the face. Maybe you would if you had the energy but you feel defeated and depressed due to your circumstances.
Who are these people anyway; these armchair therapists seemingly unscathed by the harsh realities of the “real world”? How can they tell me to ‘find the silver lining’ after my dog was hit by a car?
It might surprise you to know there’s good science behind positive thinking. “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies”, a pivotal study conducted by Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver, was published in 1985 in Health Psychology.
They developed an inventory (test) to determine one’s current disposition as either optimistic or pessimistic. The Life Orientation Test (LOT) assessed a person’s general life expectations. A Likert scale (a measurement used to determine how strongly you feel or agree with the provided statements) was used to score an equal number of positively and negatively worded statements.
You may have taken this inventory when applying for a job. Here are some sample questions:
- I always look on the bright side of things.
- Things never work out the way I want them to.
- If something can go wrong for me, it will.
- I’m a believer in the idea that, “every cloud has a silver lining”
Some of the findings were quite remarkable at the time. Of the people involved in the study, they determined the LOT test could be a good indicator of people that have high self-esteem due to previous successful experiences and are therefore more prone to being optimistic, those that derive their optimism from their belief in an omniscient higher power, and others that simply believe they’re lucky people.
They also determined that optimistic people generally have a better time of things. This is not to mean they never experience pain, heartbreak, enormous obstacles, loss, setbacks, rude drivers, or stub their toes. It means that when confronted by life’s challenges, the optimistic person is more likely to believe they can be overcome.
“Optimistic persons, as we have defined them, should be more likely than pessimistic persons to conclude that the impediments facing them can be overcome. Assuming that the presenting obstacles are in reality capable of resolution, the positive expectancies held by optimistic persons-and the continued efforts to which the expectancies give rise- should cause them to deal with their problems more successfully than those less optimistic. Thus, obstacles that arise during the course of day-to-day self-regulatory activities should be less disruptive and have less adverse consequences for optimistic than pessimistic persons (cf. Reich & Zautra, 1981; Zautra & Simons, 1979).” (Scheier & Carver, 1985, p.233).
Summed up, positive thinking not only helps us meet and overcome challenges but we can do so without the challenges throwing off our whole day.
So why don’t we ‘just think positive!’?
Listen, all you armchair therapists out there preaching the word of positivity, SHUT UP ALREADY!
This is not helping.
I know you want to help. I’m with you. I also truly believe in the power behind controlling our thoughts for positive outcomes. We all think positively. What we’re really talking about is the amount of time given to the practice of being optimistic.
Let’s face facts. If we look at life like working for the biggest company in the world, we all sign different contracts. We all have different bosses, we’re going to make different salaries, be on different teams, have different benefits, different expectations, receive different reviews and raises, and if we’ve managed to work there long enough, we’ll all retire with different retirement plans.
What must be considered before telling anyone to ‘just think positive’ is where they are currently positioned in the company. In therapy terminology, meet them where they are. I’ve got news for you, if the pessimistic person with a horrible, demeaning and demanding boss is currently scrubbing toilets and mopping floors, and you’re telling them to ‘just think positive’ with pie-in-the-sky ideas of owning the company one day, you are not helping.
Can that person change their outlook to a brighter one?
Will telling them to ‘just think positive’ followed by your own story, based on your own version of hard knocks work magic?
Most likely the answer is a big NO!
The first mistake we make if we tell people to ‘be more positive’, ‘think more positive’, or ‘just suck it up’ is believing they want to change. I’ve met plenty of people that wanted to be heard but didn’t want to change. They may have a learned helplessness that took their whole life to learn and will not be corrected with a few inspirational words and a pat on the back.
In fact, we all have self-concepts that need to be challenged. Some of our self-concepts are much harder to challenge than others. Remember, the person needs to want to challenge themselves in order to change and some people are quite happy in their misery. Ask yourself if you are really trying to help them or help yourself by creating the change. You can lead a horse to water, but you need to know when to dismount and walk away.
Through years of experience I’ve found one of the most effective ways to elevate the mood of others and my own mood is to surround yourself with people or things that will naturally do it for you. If I wanted a stubborn client to start being more positive with words and actions I modeled the behavior for them. If I caught them saying something in a negative way, I caught it and paraphrased it in a positive light. I never told them ‘just think positive’.
I never scolded and said, ‘No! Don’t say that! Say this instead’.
It’s amazing what being around certain people can do. We’ve all been there. That one person that lifts our mood and we can’t help but smile when they’re around.
Being around positive people and positive supports will do wonders. Even if someone is mostly pessimistic, over time, being around positive people and positive places can change them with or without their consent.
However, being pushy with positivity or making others feel like it’s simple and why haven’t they just figured it out can have the opposite effect. It may prove some maladaptive theory the pessimist holds about positive people and push them even further away. That encounter may send the message that you don’t understand and they’ll be sure to avoid holding conversations with you in the future.
You’ll lose future moments when you could have been a real positive-thought role-model to them, in other words, yourself.
Congratulations if you’re an optimistic person! I am too!
I’m guessing the majority of you are the kind of people other people want to be around. Your energy is infectious and people feel better having just spent time with you. However, if you’re optimistic and pushy and you’re just having a difficult time getting a few people you know to see things your way, ‘just think positive!.
(Scheier, M.F. & Carver, C.S., 1985, p.233) Retrieved from http://www.psy.cmu.edu/faculty/scheier/scales/LOT_article.pdf