The Problem with Positive Psychology

Positive psychology has come to the fore in our culture, giving rise to certain positivity performance anxiety. We are under pressure from television, radio and particularly social media to maintain an optimistic outlook, no matter what; believe that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to; learn to let things go; claim that everything happens for a good reason; and turn the proverbial “sows’ ears” of negative experiences into “silk purses.” We are told to follow our passion, to set lofty goals and rush headlong—and ecstatically—toward them.

The Oprahs of the world—influential ministers, TED talkers, motivational speakers, life coaches and celebrities—preach a hyped-up, viral message that has come to be known as the prosperity gospel: Become an unerringly positive, assertive and empathetic person, and the world will reward you with love, connection and success.

The logic is both troubling in a moral sense and likely to set us up for disappointment. First of all, aren’t we just talking about the Golden Rule? Shouldn’t being a good person be its own reward? Furthermore, human beings are not meant to be blissfully happy all the time, and negative experiences contain valuable lessons. We get depressed, anxious and fearful—generally for tangible reasons. These so-called negative emotions can function as wake-up calls, motivators to change our behaviors or to transform our circumstances for the better. They help us become and remain what the late psychologist Carl Rogers called congruent—a state of personality integration in which an individual’s real self, perceived self and ideal self match.

Recent research has challenged this naive positivity, suggesting that individuals who engage in “mental contrasting,” that is, those who set a realistic goal and then explore its obstacles are much more successful than people who engage in “magical thinking,” or those who sabotage themselves by dwelling on the hurdles. “Magical thinkers” set lofty goals that may be beyond their abilities or circumstances and visualize great success without seeing the challenges contained therein. “Eyeores” dwell on the reasons that they cannot accomplish given goals, disabling themselves before they even try.

Mental contrasting is a hybrid approach that combines positive psychology with realism. An individual first visualizes an attainable goal, allowing their imaginations full rein. They then switch into a more logical gear and begin outlining and analyzing the challenges that lie in the pursuit of that goal. Next, they work out pragmatic approaches to addressing those challenges. Such an exercise greatly increases an individual’s likelihood of success.

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, has produced powerful results in this research.

“Positive thinking is pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us,” says Oettingen. “Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forced jumping for joy.”

Indeed, mental contrasting is yet another critical tool for building congruence and working toward integration of self.