Life coaches, happiness gurus, and therapists of all stripes say the same thing: feeling happy starts with happy thoughts. They say: think positive! Banish negative thoughts from your mind, and fill it with images of achievements and that sports car you’ve always wanted. While positive thinking certainly has an important role to play in success, it turns out that negative thoughts may play an important role in enabling you to create the life you want.
Instead of being detrimental, negative thoughts are crucial to building more productive and positive thinking patterns. But you need to process negative thinking properly. To live a more positive life, ironically, you should embrace your negative thoughts.
A word of caution: Negative thoughts can be harmful if you don’t know how to use them. Read on to learn why and how you can harness and unlock the power of negative thinking to improve your life.
Why Negative Thinking Is Necessary
In American culture, the power of positive thinking is overemphasized. To think positive and be positive has become a social imperative. Pessimists are often disdained and labeled with nicknames like “Debbie Downer.” But recent scientific findings point to how negative thinking can have a corrective effect in moderating our expectations and push us to act to prevent bad things from happening.
Clinical psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor conducted a series of experiments comparing positive and negative thinking approaches to a variety of situations. The experiments, the results, and their conclusions are detailed in a book written by Norem called “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.”
In her book, Norem describes two types of people: “defensive pessimists” and “strategic optimists.” Defensive pessimists were those that saw an upcoming goal and considered all of the potential barriers that lay ahead. For example, if they aimed to wake up early every day, they considered everything that might go wrong, such as undersleeping the night before or finding an excuse to hit the snooze button. Strategic optimists, on the other hand, were more likely to picture their goal and tell themselves that nothing would get in the way of achieving it.
Norem describes how research showed that positive thinking is an ineffective strategy for many people. Positive thinking is inadequate for navigating through the anxieties, pressures, and disappointments that come with attempting to achieve one’s goals in modern society. Defensive pessimists were more effective at preparing against bumps that they were likely to encounter on their road to success.
Famed basketball coach Bob Knight also detailed similar observations in the field of sports. In his book, “The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results,” Knight details how getting athletes to consider everything that could go wrong usually leads to them to perform better.
Based on 20 years of research in the field of motivation, New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen found that negative thinking makes us more realistic. In her book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” Oettingen writes that negative thinking forces us to address our fears and make concrete plans. She says negative thoughts serve to energize us to take action to mitigate consequences.
There’s plenty of evidence that you need to take off the rose-tinted glasses and let that dark cloud of negativity rain on you for a little bit. But negative thinking doesn’t come naturally to all of us. And for some of us, negativity freezes us into inaction. How can one adopt defensive pessimism in a way that’s helpful? Read on to learn the steps of how you can train your mind to reap the benefits of pessimism.
How to Harness the power of Negative thinking for Success
There’s a right way and a wrong way to be negative. The right way has to do with using negative thinking to drive realistic approaches to goals, and not letting negative thinking weigh you down. Here’s how to use negativity to your benefit.
Use Negative Thinking to Address Challenges
Harness your pessimism to cleverly predict barriers to your goals before you start working towards it. For example, if your goal is to get a job, think hard about everything that could go wrong. You might get lazy and not do enough job applications one day. Your resume might be lackluster. You might get a bad reference.
When you’ve gone through the different scenarios, try to think of ways to mitigate them. In this example about getting a job, you contact your references beforehand and ask them if they can provide you with a strong reference. You have your resume professionally retouched. The point isn’t to mull over worse case scenarios, it’s to change them.
Lower Expectations and Always Be Satisfied
When we first set a goal for ourselves, it’s not uncommon to set the bar high. We might aim to lose far more weight in fewer months than we ever have in our lives. Use negative thinking to bring your expectations down a few notches. Want to lose 20 pounds in three months? Shoot for 10 pounds to start.
By using pessimism to set lower expectations, you’ll be kinder with yourself if you fall short and happier when you achieve and surpass your goal. Be generous with your future self: Assume that he or she is a bit lazier, slower, and less organized than your current self. If that’s the case, you’ll make things easier for that future person, and therefore make your goals more achievable.
Create Goals for Real Life
Negative thinking can help you realize that you need to abandon some goals entirely. By assuming the worst about yourself, some goals will reveal themselves as unrealistic. Instead of wasting your time striving towards a goal which you are unlikely to reach, a negative mentality will help you trim the fat and focus on goals that are most valuable and most attainable. That way, instead of spending your energy following dead ends, you can work on fewer goals and be more successful overall.
How to Embrace Negativity In a Healthy Way
Negativity, fear, and anxiety are byproducts of our natural fight-or-flight response. If we perceive a threat, our brain switches gear to quickly assess and react to the situation. It preps the body to either fight or run away. This response is typically triggered when there’s no bodily threat at hand. A stressful conversation with your boss can trigger the fight-or-flight response and all of the negative emotions and stress that comes with it. Considering worse-case scenarios can also trigger the response.
This natural response can’t be completely eliminated. Until human beings can evolve out of triggering of the fight-or-flight response unnecessarily, we can use tactics like mindfulness meditation to control the resulting stress.
Mindfulness is the best way to place your emotions in a rational context and protect your mental health. If you are able to take a “bird’s eye” view of your negative thoughts, you’ll be better able to separate them from the primal, unrealistic fears that may accompany them due to the fight-or-flight response. Embrace your negative thoughts without giving them too much importance. View them as pieces on the chessboard, not the game itself.
Being negative can be dangerous, as it is stressful to seriously consider a darker future. In an attempt to relieve the stress of negative thoughts, many people use short-term coping mechanisms such as alcohol, overeating, or overspending. These all have long-term negative consequences that increase stress and conflict in our lives.
Be wary of how you are processing your negativity. Try to approach negative thoughts with humor and goodwill. Remember: Thoughts are not actions or consequences. Many of the things we think will happen will actually never happen. While we may have negative thoughts, we will not necessarily experience their negative outcomes.
Coping mechanisms happen when we take negative thoughts too seriously, and try to escape them. If you find yourself stress eating or oversleeping, ask yourself if you’re taking your pessimism too seriously and adjust your thinking from there.
Don’t Forget to Create Room for Positivity
After reading this post, you may be ready to dive into a sea of dark thoughts and apocalyptic futures. But don’t leave all of your positive thinking behind.
Positive thinking is an important coping mechanism for when things go wrong, enabling you to process negative events with optimism and hope. Positive thinking is especially important for coping with illness or catastrophic events such as a losing a family member.
What’s more, positive emotions can help people develop as individuals, pushing them to become creative, productive, and resilient. Positive emotions can lift you up and get you to go for it.
Practice mindfulness to continually optimize your state of mind. Over time, studies show meditating for 10 minutes a day changes our reaction to both positive and negative stimuli. It does this by strengthening our ability to rationally process information, and weakens our brain’s knee-jerk reaction towards fight-or-flight. Mind over matter, as they say.
The key is to strike a balance between negative and positive thoughts. Use positive thinking to create a set of initial aspirations and to help you get through the tough patches. Use negative thinking to help you prepare for hard times before they arrive and to inject some realism into your goals. Most importantly, practice self-compassion: In the end, whether you achieve what you set out to do or not, you are valuable for who you are, not what you do.