7 Reasons Why Positive Thinking Will Ruin Your Life

– “Children in Darfur are starving to death. Have they attracted that starvation to themselves?”
– “I think the country probably has.”

From an interview with Bob Proctor, an expert on positive thinking

If you ever tried to find ways to change yourself, to be happy and create a better life, you have certainly come across the idea of positive thinking.

It’s a very popular concept in the personal development circle —there are plenty of self-help books on that topic. The power of positive thinking is often emphasized at seminars, and personal coaching sessions are all about positive outlook on life. Even on social media, not a minute goes by without someone posting a nice picture that reminds you to think positively.

The message could not be clearer: Positive thinking leads to happiness and makes your dreams come true.

Your success depends on whether or not you choose the positive direction for your thoughts, generate the right vibrations, and avoid any negative thoughts or emotions. Your way of thinking determines what you will attract—negative thinking attracts bad things, whereas positive thinking attracts good things — according to the so-called law of attraction.

Unfortunately, that’s not true.

If you follow the fad of positive thinking, and start believing that everything is a matter of positive attitude, you may encounter a few unpleasant surprises. This is due to the following seven reasons why positive thinking can ruin your life:

1. Positive thinking makes achieving your goals more difficult.

“Nonsense, it’ll do the opposite!” you’re probably thinking.

Well, I am sorry, but I have to disappoint you. It’s a fact.

The more you fantasize about your fabulous future, your happy life, your dream job, the loving people around you, and huge amounts of money, the farther you get from making these dreams come true.

For instance, if you want to lose weight and you’re thinking about how wonderful you will feel once you are slimmer, how your life will be better, and how others will admire you—your chances to actually lose weight become lower[1]. Studies indicate that such fantasizing produces negative effects in many different parts of life—from academic achievements[2] to professional careers, to improving one’s health, and even to personal relationships[3].

The experiments were designed to assess not only short-term, but also long-term effects. It turns out that positive thinking makes it harder to achieve near goals (e.g., two weeks), as well as farther goals (e.g., two years). Bummer, isn’t it? And that was only the first item on the list.

2. Positive thinking leads to self-accusations.

Promoters of positive thinking often state: “If you think positively hard enough, everything will be possible,” or “Your attitude constitutes the basis of your success in every domain”.

However, such an assumption has its other side of the coin: If something doesn’t work out, or if something bad happens to you, it’s your fault because you allowed some negative thoughts. Maybe you just didn’t have quite enough positive thoughts. It was your attitude that attracted the unfortunate events, as the ridiculous quote at the beginning of this post seems to imply: The children in Africa must have been having too many thoughts about dieting and losing weight, which is why they attracted starvation.

Obviously, that is not true. You are not God. You are not responsible for everything. There are things that are out of your control. To understand this, you have to think realistically. You have to try to determine what you can influence and what you can’t. I know, sometimes it’s not that simple[4][5].

3. Positive thinking results in suppressing your feelings.

Life is filled with a vast range of emotions, not only positive ones. Life has its bright side, but it also has some dark places. What’s more, you wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the good in your life without experiencing some difficulties and troubles.

The pressure of positive thinking can result in suppressing any pessimistic thoughts or unpleasant emotions, because they might attract the bad things. This way you deprive yourself of access to the complete picture and the full range of emotions. You limit yourself from experiencing life in all of its wonderful complexity.

Some people find the pressure so strong that positive thinking becomes a requirement, and as a result, the normal way of thinking (i.e., allowing yourself to have some negative or unpleasant thoughts or doubts) is considered abnormal. This can create a vicious circle of suppressed feelings, self-deception and delusions[6].

It may cause serious issues in the case of cancer patients, who are particularly prone to the pressures of thinking positively and heroically fighting their disease. As it turns out, it can actually make the patients feel worse. Many of them say that they are tired of the pressure to be positive and actually want to complain about their pain and sufferings, and about losing hope. They say they could use a break from playing the heroes. But, of course, they can’t – they have to remain positive[7].

4. Positive thinking can lower your self-esteem.

At times, when your self-esteem is not at its highest point and you don’t feel confident, you may want to improve it somehow. However, repeating positive affirmations not only will not help you, it can be harmful.

A study showed that repeating positive affirmations about oneself does work, but only for those who already have a high sense of self-esteem. For people with low self-esteem this technique only makes them feel worse about themselves[8]. Improving your self-esteem requires more complex methods than simply looking in the mirror each day and saying, “I am a champion!”

5. Positive thinking can make you less happy.

Positive thinking generates unrealistic expectations. The so-called experts on positivity fill your mind with beautiful dreams. They say, “Think positively and you’ll become whoever you want, you’ll do great things, and anything will be possible”.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. At some point you will face a reality check. You will see how your real current situation differs from the enormous expectations. You haven’t achieved a great success. You’re not on top of the world. It turns out, not everything is possible.

Positive thinking will not lead you to great success; it may be a huge disappointment.

Another issue is thinking about the future in bright colours. An experiment was conducted where participants were asked to think about the good things that can happen in the future. Participants who thought about just a few such things reported good feelings and happiness. However, when the participants were asked to come up with more positive future events, their mood worsened and they began to feel worse. If you picture your future in excessively positive colours, you will feel worse about yourself[9].

6. Positive thinking makes you less likely to help others.

If you believe that all kinds of problems in the world (e.g., starvation, war, or crime) will come to a positive end, you are not likely to do anything to help solve the problems. It seems logical to say, “Why bother doing anything if the problem will solve itself?”

It was found that people who believe in positive solutions for all problems are less likely to donate to charity. (Let’s not even mention meditation for the sake of victims and the idea of sending them positive thoughts…) [10]

7. Positive thinking makes you care less about your health.

People have a natural way of thinking about bad things in life, the so-called optimistic bias. It means that we can imagine bad things happening to others, but not to ourselves[11].

For example, smokers who are aware of the risks of getting lung cancer believe that others may get cancer, but not them; some people believe that an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise will cause heart disease to others, but not to them; and so on.

Positive thinking reinforces this tendency. If you’re sure that everything will be fine, why worry about your health? This can lead to some serious dangers for your health, and for your life in general.

It doesn’t mean that you should sit down and start crying to ensure that things turn out okay.

Optimism is important.

And it is our natural way of thinking. Most people already see themselves, their future, and the world optimistically.

The problem occurs when we magnify this tendency, and above all, fantasize about our great future. This is what makes us lose our grasp on reality and surrender to the illusions, which usually causes problems.

On the other hand, if you do worry too much and have a problem seeing the good in your life, then positive thinking and affirmations won’t help you very much. Instead, it may cause even more damage.

You need to take specific actions. For example, learn how to make proper judgements about the events in your life (good and bad), which will help you benefit from your experience. The best way to do so is to consciously think differently, to see the situation from both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives.

What to do instead?

OK, positive thinking doesn’t work very well, so what should you do instead? There is a technique called Mental Contrasting developed by Gabriele Oettingen, a specialist in the psychology of motivation, with a large body of research showing its effectiveness[12][13][14][15]. In short, this method involves imagining the benefits of achieving a certain goal (instead of simply imagining achieving the goal) followed by imagining obstacles and difficulties that may get in the way of completing your goal. So you imagine both the good and bad things that may happen. That’s it. Sounds simple, and it is.

7 Reasons Why Positive Thinking Will Ruin Your Life

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[1] Oettingen, G., Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15 (2), 167-175

[2] Kappes, H. B., Oettingen, G., Mayer, D. (2012). Positive fantasies predict low academic achievement in disadvantaged students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 53-64

[3] Oettingen, G., Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (5), 1198-1212

[4] Ehrenreich, B. (2010). The delusion of positive thinking. Therapy Today, 21 (4), 10-17

[5] Marqusee, M. (2009, December 29). I don’t need a war to fight my cancer. I need empowering as a patient. The Guardian,, 01.12.2013

[6] Fernandez-Rios, L., Novo, M. (2012). Positive Psychology: Zeigeist (or spirit of the times) or ignorance (or disinformation) of history? International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 12 (2), 333-344

[7] Tod, A. (2011). A critique of positive thinking for patients with cancer. Nursing standard, 25 (39), 42-47

[8] Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q. E., Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866

[9] O’Brian, E. (2013). Easy to retrieve but hard to believe: metacognitive discounting of the unpleasantly possible. Psychological Science, 24 (6), 844-851

[10] Kappes, H. B., Sharma, E., Oettingen, G. (2013). Positive fantasies dampen charitable giving when many resources are demanded. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23 (1), 128-135

[11] Weinstein, N. D. (1989). Optimistic biases and personal risks. Science, 246 (4935), 1232-1233

[12] Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting and the self-regulation of helping relations. Social Cognition, 28(4), 490-508.

[13] Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Thorpe, J. (2010). Self-regulation of commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future with reality. Psychology and Health, 25(8), 961-977.

[14] Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., de Ridder, D. T., & De Wit, J. B. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(7), 1277-1293.

[15] Gollwitzer, A., Oettingen, G., Kirby, T. & Duckworth, A. L. (2011). Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children. Motivation and Emotion, 35, 403-412.


Photo by Jorn Idzerda, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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