Why Thinking Positive Doesn't Always Work

Keeping a positive mindset is helpful. Nonetheless, in some circumstances, it's better to leave room for another type of mental focus.
Why Thinking Positive Doesn't Always Work
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Many people have realized that thinking positive doesn’t always work and that a hopeful attitude doesn’t guarantee good things will happen. Some experts say that people tend to enter a period where they embrace some kind of “gentle pessimism”, which helps them understand that life sometimes doesn’t go your way.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The human mind is used to extreme polarity, which explains why everyone feels the need to categorize things as “good” or “bad”. It may be time to understand that not everything is black or white.

For many decades, thinking positive has been a recurring piece of advice. After all, it’s what people tend to cling to whenever they face difficulties. It’s no secret that, in some way, injecting optimism into the brain keeps us from falling into helplessness.

However, the present moment is full of uncertainty. In one way or another, it’s necessary to face the fears we have, no matter how difficult that might be.

Furthermore, it’s time for us to see things from a different perspective; one where positivity and hope are still standing but in a more realistic way. This, without a doubt, would make it easier for everyone to navigate challenges more effectively.

Why positive thinking doesn’t always work

Positive thinking has many defenders but also many opponents. You could say there’s no middle ground when it comes to this. To the psychological approach popularized in the 90s by individuals such as Martin Seligman or Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, critical voices are added such as that of psychologist Julie K. Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College. Believe it or not, she’s been trying to warn everyone of something very specific.

In her 2001 book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, she talks about the childish way our culture sees positivity. There’s been a significant reduction in Seligman’s lessons, to the point where individuals see positivity as something “fashionable”. In fact, a lot of people assume that everything can be fixed by focusing on the bright side of life.

But let’s be real here. Sometimes, it’s pretty much impossible to focus on the bright side of life. Not only is this understandable but also expected. As Viktor Frankl pointed out, it’s normal to react in an unusual way to unusual situations. Therefore, it’s vital to understand that there are many different reasons why thinking positive doesn’t always work. Let’s analyze them.

A sticky note with a smiley face on it.

Thinking positive doesn’t prepare you to face negative outcomes

Repeating that “everything will be okay” over and over again can be counterproductive. There’s danger in only focusing on a successful outcome-oriented approach that ignores other possibilities. This way, if things don’t go as you think, it can catch you off guard, both emotionally and psychologically.

The best thing to do in these situations is to apply a realistic approach. “I hope things turn out well, but if they don’t, I’ll face it. I’ll accept it and cope with it appropriately.”

It can make you adopt a passive attitude

Julie K. Norem explains in her book that it’s advisable to adopt a somewhat pessimistic perspective on reality. It’s about shuffling all the possibilities and reminding yourself that what you want and hope can happen, but there’s also the possibility of things going wrong. It’s important for you to think of what you’d do in those circumstances.

You must try your best and work hard to prevent these negative results from happening. If you simply assume that everything will work out, you’ll most likely adopt a passive attitude, which can be dangerous.

Thinking positive doesn’t always work in the face of anxiety

The anxious mind has the peculiarity of not being able to see the good side of life. In that sense, thinking positive doesn’t always work when you’re feeling worried, stressed, and emotionally challenged. There are situations where, no matter how much others tell you to cheer up, you still feel down because you simply don’t believe it.

In this context, it’s interesting to consider approaches that acceptance and commitment therapy offer. Believe it or not, they can help you understand that life isn’t easy and that you’re allowed to fall, be fallible, and feel hopeless at times. However, this doesn’t mean you may lose your commitment to yourself. Find a balance.

A man reflecting on the fact that thinking positive doesn't always work.

Extremes are never good: get rid of naive positivism and chronic pessimism

Thinking positive doesn’t always work because life is unpredictable. Also, because perhaps your coping strategies against adversity, frustration, fear, and suffering aren’t adequate.

Life is a kaleidoscope of experiences. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes bad, and other times they’re just average. You have to learn to navigate all those oceans both on calm days and stormy nights.

Does this mean that it’s better to be pessimistic? Not at all. However, it isn’t advisable to adopt a naive and confident positivity. You mustn’t believe that it’s enough to want something a lot for it to happen. The present moment is quite complex and you’ve probably already realized that this formula doesn’t work. Extremes are never good.

You must be realistic. Train yourself in handling daily challenges and learn to tolerate the unpredictable and even painful. However, keep in mind that everything’s about balance, which means that you should continue nurturing hope. After all, doing so is an existential necessity.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • K. Norem Julie K. (2001) El poder positivo del pensamiento negativo. Paidós.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.