When I was growing up there was a well known advert featuring Olympic sprint champion Linford Christie. In the advert, a dad would be shown telling his child that if he wanted to perform like Christie at his upcoming sports day, he needed PMA - Positive Mental Attitude.
Of course, that was a light hearted attempt at selling washing powder, but the self help industry has mushroomed in recent years, and the allure of positive thinking has been a fundamental aspect of that rise.
The dark side of positive thinking
A recent study suggests, however, that positive thinking can often hide a dark side. The research set out to explore how our brain reacts when we have positive thoughts and when we have negative ones. For instance, participants in the study were shown a distressing image. After seeing the image, they were told to try and put some kind of positive spin on the image. The results revealed that when people who were broadly positive by nature undertook the task, they found it much easier than people with a more balanced disposition. Indeed, it was in the brains of these individuals that the researchers discovered something interesting. It transpired that the brains of these people reacted rather oddly when they were asked to act out of character by applying a positive spin to something inherently negative.
“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions. This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively,” the researchers say.
Does it pay to be yourself?
The research found that people who were generally positive had no such issues. When they were responding naturally, their brains reacted perfectly normally to the task given them. It rather suggests that changing our natural behaviours is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and even attempting to do so might do more harm than good.
“You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry — that’s probably not going to help them. So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies,” the researchers reveal.
Where does this leave us?
If you’re naturally a bit grumpy then, is there anything you can do? I think the key message from the study is that we should do our best to both understand our natural behaviours, and to then respect them.
If you want to become a more positive kind of person, then you’ll have to dig a lot deeper into your psyche to do so. Your brain can’t be easily kidded.
Of course, from an organisational perspective, there is value in having both kinds of people in your team. Having someone that’s happy to relay bad news can often be incredibly valuable in your attempts to improve, so maybe the grumpy amongst us shouldn’t change one bit.
Image: Buzz Feed