Could Positive Thinking Make You More Depressed?


a happy woman looking into a mirror but her reflection is sad In his public TEDx talk, motivational celebrity Tony Robbins claimed that he has never lost a client to suicide. However, a few days before she jumped to her death, Sydney native Rebekah Lawrence participated in an intense self-help seminar called The Turning Point replete with techniques on how to positive think oneself to satisfaction and happiness.

For the last ten years, optimism has been touted as the one-way route to ultimate health and happiness. Books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret promise prosperity and personal fulfillment with a few cognitive tweaks in your thinking.  However, recent studies disclose a few potholes in America’s smiley philosophy. In fact, according to some experts, positive thinking can reap more harm than good.

It Doesn’t Make Sense

In her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich explores the smothering impact of positive thinking in American culture. Forced optimism, she argues, is everywhere from medical institutions to churches, from politics to the business world. Her book successfully debunks some central myths of positive psychology, and begins with exposing the irrational logic behind its concept. She writes, “If the generic ‘positive thought’ is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not believe that things will get better on their own.” The whole vocabulary touted by positive thinking gurus —“mind control,” “thought control,” “self-hypnosis”— suggests that it requires “deliberate self-deception,” a herculean effort to block out “negative” – or should we way real? — thoughts.

The Harder You Try, the Worse Off You Are

The anatomy of the brain can take only so much pressure to be positive without giving the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center) the bird as it wants to be left alone. Can you blame it? This is especially true if you happen to be a chronic worrier like I am. A study published in Journal of Neuroscience showed that there was a breakdown in normal patterns of emotional processing that prevented depressed and anxious people (everyone I know) from suppressing negative emotions. In fact, the more they tried, the more they activated the fear center of their brain, the amygdala, which fed them more negative messages.

For those with a diminished sense of self, repeating to yourself in the mirror with a cheesy grin — “I am smart,” “I am good,” “Gosh darn it, I rock!” – might not be an appropriate exercise. Those types of affirmations only work on the people who don’t need them — the annoying types who never doubt themselves, who would benefit from some self-reflection. The folks who spend hours ruminating on how they can be a better person, beat themselves up over mistakes they made ten years ago, and interrogate themselves a few times a day as to why they aren’t living up to their full potential? Better off spending your time reading a 50 Shades of Grey, getting a massage, or grabbing a beer with a friend.

Psychologist Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada led a study where a group of people were told to repeat to themselves a positive mantra —“I am a lovable person”— on cue, which was repeated 16 times. At the end of the exercise, the folks with normal to high self-esteem reported feeling slightly better while the ones with low self-esteem felt worse. Katie Goldsmith of University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center blogs about the study, explaining that people with low self-esteem might have been damaged by the mantra because the affirmation could remind them that they aren’t measuring up to standards set by themselves. Moreover, researchers found that people with low self-esteem were better off when they were allowed to have negative thoughts, versus focusing solely on positive ones.

Focus on the Worst-Case Scenario

No study is needed to convince me that focusing on the worst-case scenario will relieve anxiety. I often visualize myself jobless, trying to gain employment at Kentucky Fried Chicken, moving my kids and husband into a dark little apartment in a neighborhood where I’d tuck my kids into bed to the sound of loud gunshots. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I finish this exercise because I know that even if I ended up there, we would all be okay. Sort of. The kids would fight over the drumsticks. But I think we could resolve that with some tasty biscuits. Oliver Burkeman, also with Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, cites research from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in his blog post, How to Harness the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. In one study a bunch of thirsty people were asked to visualize an icy glass of water. What happened? Their energy levels dropped. Says Burkeman: “Visualizing your ideal future is a staple of self-help bestsellers, but vividly picturing success can backfire badly.”

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Illustration: Gustav Dejert/Getty Images

Published originally on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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23 Responses
  1. Sherri

    I totally disagree. Positivity through Christ has been life changing for me. From childhood abuse to being widowed at age 33, an on purpose positive attitude has kept me flourishing. Christ has given me that hope and without it I would have been sunk. Even now when I go through depression, it is the underlying positivity that keeps me afloat.

    1. Danielle

      That is great that mythology works for you. Some of us prefer facing the realities of this life so we can metabolize what we have experienced, face our pain, and grow from it no matter how hard that process may be. Great freedom, strength, and peace lives on the other side of that process. There is no guarantee there is an afterlife because faith is based on believing in what cannot be proven. I prefer learning through investigative inquiry into what can be proven. I am ok with the possibility of no afterlife because I am doing all that I can to explore every inch of who I am on this Earth today. I’m not taking a gamble on an imagined eternity or the forgiveness of a bearded man in the sky. All of this healing is MY responsibility and mine alone. There is no passing the buck to someone or something else.

      1. Greg Nagel

        Why do you have the need to convince someone with religious beliefs that they are wrong? Do their beliefs cause you some form of emotional distress?

      2. Spot on, Danielle. Thanks for your clear, concise response. So true.

        “That is great that mythology works for you. Some of us prefer facing the realities of this life so we can metabolize what we have experienced, face our pain, and grow from it no matter how hard that process may be.”

    2. Melanie

      This is awesome for you, but I imagine other factors are in play that have changed if you became involved in a Christian community, such as social support, vulnerability with others, acceptance, etc.

  2. Carolyn

    Thank you so much for posting this! I have had the “power of positive” thinking preached at me for decades. “You will get what you think about” they said….”read this book and it will change your life”….. When I first heard this I wondered why it was that I had never realized my dream of a happy, safe living arrangement and a loving family – not just something trivial. I knew myself to have become at an early age a pessimist, so I set about to try to improve things and to a large extent I learned to dismiss the many negative thoughts that had been programmed into me. Yet here I am, in a situation which ironically reflects the situation I found myself in at the age of 16. Yet I know that millions of people would happily trade places with me as I have food and shelter and no life threatening illness, so I will not complain. However I am so grateful to finally know that my failure to achieve my dream does not mean I am deficient in some way or carrying bad karma from a previous existence. For so many years I felt I was to blame for all the “stuff”. Now I can let that thought go too.
    Many thanks!

  3. Dale Heins

    Thanks Therese, I have believed this for a long while and I think it helped me to that all the positive things I told myself about me I just never believed. I was recommended a book a few years ago titled “Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking” by Oliver Burkeman, it really helped me to better see myself the way I am as opposed to the way I’m supposed to see me through positive thinking. Therese You are a great person and thank you for all you’ve done for our groups and me personally!!!!

  4. Akua

    Amen, Therese! “Refreshing” is an understatement. I’ve seen first hand this “deliberate self-deception” in the name of Biblical directives (which it is of course not limited to, just what’s in my most immediate environment), and the level of denial is mind boggling. Are you familiar with Caroline Leaf’s scam “neuroscience”? Appalling, not to mention incredibly harmful.

    Thanks for such a breath of fresh air.

  5. Judie

    I’m going through a 5+ year depressive episode, and recently found myself veeeery close to the edge. I’m now working with my therapist to just recognize when I’m guilting myself for not doing a chore and tell my self to let go off the guilt about it and tell myself that it’s ok for right now not to do the chore (these are things like cleaning out a closet, helping my husband cook dinner, things that aren’t really a big deal and I used to be able to just do without a second thought). It’s helping, and I’ve expanded the practice toward the constant barrage of of vindictive thoughts the depression pokes me with (the mustard doesn’t go on that shelf, stop grinding your teeth, you should go sit outside, get a damn haircut, practice your guitar, take off your hoodie – it’s warm out, turn off your iPad, don’t turn on the tv, you’re wrong, worthless, and don’t belong, that kind of stuff). It’s very difficult, but it does help when I tell myself I have to let it go – I’m not in good enough shape right now to argue with it. This certainly isn’t the positive thinking discussed in the article, and my therapist has always told me that stuff doesn’t work. But getting the belittling thoughts to ease up, replaced by neutral or no thoughts about it, does help.

    As for your thoughts creating your reality, try reading the Seth books by Jane Roberts. It explains how that happens. I’m glad I read those a long time ago, it gives me a foundation of sorts.

    Thanks as always, Therese. I wish you well.

  6. Allan

    I have had suspicions about this since reflecting on the impact on my mental health of following the teaching of one personal development teacher 15 years ago.
    They proposed the use of “positive self-talk” to deliberately set up cognitive dissonance between reality and the imagined future. The purpose of this was to motivate the unconscious to creatively find ways of bringing it about.
    From my earlier studies of psychology I was familiar with the concept, but felt it was personally destructive in the state of mind I found myself in at the time.

  7. kdn

    Mindfulness practice is what has worked for me. When practicing mindfulness, one is not focusing on any particular type of thought (positive or negative), but being aware of whatever thoughts come up and pass away. So, if an anxious thought comes up, one can be aware that it has come up and also notice how it passes away. This needs some practice at the beginning, but it is worth training the mind to do this.

  8. Thank you very much for this very well researched and written post. Until there is mass enlightenment of human beings, shallow and reductionist thinking will continue to appeal. It seems both the human body and mind will grab at anything that appeals instantly. We continue to be the gift that keeps on giving to the fitness, weight loss and self-help “gurus.” I’ve found that yoga and mindfulness meditation are far more effective in pulling people up. The journey to self-acceptance is the key. It’s very hard to do this in western society because of the emphasis on instant results. I wish more people would understand that knowing, accepting, and loving oneself and others is a practice that never ends.

  9. Sooxie

    I have been fighting the code of possibility for a long time. I have always thought it was false, twee, and insincere. I have preferred to have low expectations–and when things turn out better than anticipated, it feels great!!!!! People don’t get this, and they label you “glass 1/2 full” or negative–like you’re outlook is wrong, misguided, and unfortunate. I feel the EXACT opposite, and think that forced positivity is self-defeating and unrealistic in many cases–plus it often sets you up for disappointment. For me, my more tempered outlook makes me serene!

  10. nessa3

    I was in a church that wanted everyone to be ok….and that meant looking and speaking the part…If your a Christain you should be happy and up all the time, think positive thoughts all the time…or your sinning and selfish.
    So like a good soldier I worked hard at it …memorised the correct scriptures…pushed all the negative thoughts out…worked for a while…but I found thats just covering up and lying… you cant get better by covering up and shoving the past down….eventually it all comes up …. nasty and ugly…
    Guess what God knows all your nasty ugly stuff….and doesn’t run or shame you for being honest…so why put on a show for Religious people who cant handle truth.

    1. Been There...But Always Learning

      Amen, nessa3!!! Yup, God doth do know all the good, bad, ugly and beautiful about us. And belittling oneself and beating up oneself for those times when we consider ourselves (or others) “not up to snuff” really TAKES AWAY from the meaning of Jesus’ death. If Christians believe he died once for all, WTH are we doing with continuing beating up ourselves and others???

      The other thing is that too often Christians forget Jesus’ Resurrection. Ummm!!! To me, that means living in joy (as much as I possibly can) even along side and in spite of my TRD (treatment-resistant depression).

      Oh, and sorry for getting preachy right now, but if you believe in Jesus, great. If you don’t, great too. Everyone has to find their own truth in this world. Just a little recommendation to those who may be interested…look into near-death experiences. The range of experiences are amazing. They’re all different and experiencers have been from all walks of life. I began looking into them a few years ago when my Mom shared hers with me. As well, some friends had clincally died and came back with their own accounts. There were some similarities and, of course, some differences as we are all unique. I listened with great interest, but was still a bit detached from it until I had an experience myself that wasn’t an NDE, but rather an accident where I was completely preserved. Anywhooohaaaa… You’ll find the “Other Side” is for everybody – no matter what religion OR not!!! Heck, I have friends who are athiests who are better people than I am, LOL.

      Okay, enough of my rant…and…to the main point of this post…the positivity movement. I get where it’s coming from but I’ve seen where it’s gone. I’m sure it was meant to be helpful (at least I hope that was the intention of the movement), but I have seen it do a great deal of damage, especially when I witnessed “positivity” people shaming others who were considered “wallowing” in their “negativity.” Ummm!!!! Hello, we humans have feelings and emotions for a reason. And, yeah, maybe sometimes we’re “wallowing” in them for different reasons. I had a friend who wallowed in them because it got the attention of her spouse focused on her. Some would call that manipulative, and perhaps it was. However, what was going on inside of her to keep her stuck in her “negativity” to garner that attention from the person she loved. Come to find out there was a lot of pain and trauma underneath all of that. She just had to dig deeper under that pain, sorrow and grief.

      For myself, I’ve dumped the positivity movement. I realize and accept that I have both “positive” times and “negative” times. I’ve learned to “talk to and with” both sides to see what’s going on inside of me. I’m still having difficulty with self-compassion, especially given my cultural conditioning of “beating myself up.” That’s when I remind myself of what I wrote up top.

      Finally, (yup, there’s a finally, LOL), I hold the belief that we’re all just trying to make it through in one piece in this world. We often don’t give ourselves enough credit just making it through a day in this place. Sometimes, we even add to the pain and crazyness. We’re human. Well, for me I believe we’re spirits inhabiting a body, but if that doesn’t work for you, no problema. It’s just what gets me through the day. I think most “beliefs” are that. BUT…ya never know. There could be some truth to them. Or maybe it could just be my own personal truth and another has their own personal truth. I always believe that so long as it does no harm to you, to another living being, etc., then go with it.

      And I always think upon a quote attributed to Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a PROFOUNDLY SICK SOCIETY.” (Emphasis mine.). Maybe my mental un-health does make sense after all. (Although, I’ll continue to try to see some beauty somewhere in each day.).

      Peace and goodness to all!!!

  11. Soumyajit

    Maam i was in a relationship.The girl whom i loved ditched me.I am getting depressed.I can’t forget her.Plz suggest me some ways of coming out from this matter

  12. vanessa

    I agree with what you said. I tried for years the positive rants…the endless memorising scriptures, only listening to positive things….just left me feeling defeated, looser, something wrong with me because it didnt work….The most helpful was getting a good therapist.

  13. […] This is a particularly painful one. We love to tell people who are struggling things like Just think more positively and the world will respond positively. But this isn’t true; your brain is not, in fact, in control of the world. It’s not even really in control of itself. Although there’s always a degree of intentionality that needs to go into the treatment of mental illness– you do need to choose to do things differently at some point– positive thinking is not a treatment. A number of studies have found differences in thinking and emotion in depressed patients, leading many to speculate that attempts by unhappy people to force themselves to think positively actually make things worse. […]

  14. […] This is a particularly painful one. We love to tell people who are struggling things like Just think more positively and the world will respond positively. But this isn’t true; your brain is not, in fact, in control of the world. It’s not even really in control of itself. Although there’s always a degree of intentionality that needs to go into the treatment of mental illness– you do need to choose to do things differently at some point– positive thinking is not a treatment. A number of studies have found differences in thinking and emotion in depressed patients, leading many to speculate that attempts by unhappy people to force themselves to think positively actually make things worse. […]

  15. EB

    I’ve gotten through hard times taking risks and being positive. Hoping and expecting the best. But, in the last few years, I’ve gotten myself into so many problems and most of them were just for trying. After I separated from my wife and she took my kids to live abroad I had a very hard time. I also suffer from bipolar disorder which doesn’t help. I moved to Spain to at least be in the same continent as them and I was almost broke when I did so. I’ve earned a lot of money, many millions in my life but I spent it all, some on gray living, some on women and some on helping people that don’t even remember or appreciate it.
    I live on a very small budget that comes from family help. It doesn’t come out of love but out of pity and guilt. I’m not a bad person but I’ve made mistakes and my “support group” has always been more of an I told you so and you deserve it kind of group. By this I mean my family. When I bought a house the first thing they told me is that it was going to be very stressful when I couldn’t make the payments and lose it and that it was a fact that would happen, it’s just a matter of time. Because of this, I always tried to be better and better by showing it with financial and professional success.
    My health is not good even though I’m just 40 and I can’t do many things I could a few years back.
    I arrived to this country which is all about fun, great to travel and rest and laugh, but not to work and make something of yourself. I have two master degrees and a PhD and I also speak 5 languages and never been lazy to work.
    All the small businesses experiments I’ve done, instead of just being unsuccessful which was the worst case scenario possible got me in more debt and trouble. Turns out that the average income ratio in Spain in nowhere near to afford to rent a place and have a semi-decent life with some dignity. People are convinced that the government MUST take care of all their problems and they work in order to get to the Spanish Nirvana which is to retire and collect a pension. You see people in their mid and late 40’s living with their parents, many people and it’s because they can’t afford independence and they are waiting to inherit the apartment to have a home.
    So, I tried doing a little of entrepreneurship and it landed me in debt with the bank and with the government because bureaucracy is hell in here. I didn’t try something crazy, just getting a couple cars, fixing them up and tried to sell them but, when they had to go through the official inspection, it turns out you need to make an appointment and they just didn’t, so the temporary plates expired and so did my ability to move them. Since they were not used and I was struggling for cash to take them to the inspection in a tow truck, they didn’t have insurance either which landed me a couple fines per car worth 800 Euros and since I couldn’t pay them they turned to 1,200 Euros each and they try to take the money of my account every now and then, so if I have my groceries money on the bank, tomorrow it might not be there.
    One day, the cars were towed by the government creating another debt for me from the tow, the fine and the storage, which I wasn’t able to pay. Then I got a letter that I lost the cars but I still owe over 3K Euros for all this things per car. After buying the cars, having them detailed and painted, new tires, oil and brake change and some other details, I have no cars to sell, I still owe the money I borrowed for this venture and I owe a ton of money to the government, not to mention the person I hired to file my taxes filed something wrong and now I owe 30K Euros on taxes after no income.
    I’ve been always willing to work and try everything, but I found out that being positive here and thinking you can do it with effort it might not be only disappointing because you didn’t succeed, you can end up in trouble as if you had gambled away all your money and some more from a loan shark.
    The last few months I’ve been static, reading and watching television and avoiding even going out because I’m afraid I’ll get a ticket for something and my life would just get worse.
    I really don’t know what to do, all the people I know that understand me culturally (because Spaniards do not have a single thing in common with my way of thinking) tell me everything is going to be fine as long as I try and stay positive. Of course, they all have a very good financial situation.
    Every day is hell to me because I don’t do anything, I’m afraid and with good reason to get into more trouble just for trying and I’m tired and depressed.
    I don’t know what to do anymore, I’m tired of life. I’m not thinking about harming myself but I wouldn’t mind learning I have a disease that will kill me in a few months.