Does Positive Thinking Work? Research Shows It May Lead To Depression Down The Road

When it comes to maintaining a positive attitude and good mental health, there's a lot of talk about the power of positive thinking — that is, if you're worried about getting a promotion at work, or asking someone on a first date, people often encourage you to go into the situation with a positive vision of the outcome. I don't think this is necessarily bad advice, but recent research shows that positive thinking may lead to depression down the road. I know; this surprised me too. But the study entitled "Pleasure Now, Pain Later" which appears in the journal Psychological Science, has a pretty strong argument to back the claim. Basically, people who have an idealized view of the future (ie: getting that promotion, falling in love with your cute new neighbor, etc.) tend to have less depressive symptoms in the moment, but face more depressive symptoms down the road.

The methodology behind these findings is pretty interesting, so let's break it down before we go forward to the actual research. To start, the researchers looked at four groups to examine the relationship between their positive fantasies of the future and depressive symptoms. Age-wise, they looked specifically at children and people in college. To determine their findings, researchers had the subjects fill out questionnaires and keep diaries up to date on their daily emotions.

First Study

For the first study, researchers discovered that the 88 college students who fantasized positively about their future had less depressive symptoms at the time, but had more depressive symptoms a month later.

Second Study

The second study had the same premise as the first, but involved children, and stretched out for a longer period of time, and depressive symptoms showed up as far as seven months later.

Third Study

The third study asked participants to record their thoughts (both positive and negative) eight times a day, for a period of four days in a row. Lo and behold, in same vein as the previous findings, participants who had more positive thoughts at the time had more depressive symptoms six months later.

Final Study

At this point, the relationship between positive thinking now and depressive symptoms later was clearly established, so researchers shifted gears a bit to figure out why this was happening so consistently. At this stage, they looked at college students and their grades. Apparently, college students who were thought more positively about their future grades actually achieved lower grades, which in turn may have caused the depressive symptoms.

Now, this study is correlational in nature, so one can't really say that x amount of positive thoughts will cause y amount of depressive symptoms, or depression, sometime down the road. But it sheds light on a really interesting concept about how we (possibly) set ourselves up for disappointment. Can the power of positive thinking actually be setting us up for failure down the road? Can anything live up to our expectations?

Here are some key suggestions I found for balancing positive thoughts with realistic outcomes:

1. Positive Thinking Doesn't Cure Depression

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No matter how hard you try, if you suffer from depression, positive thinking alone isn't going to change it. Sure, positive thinking can have many positive impacts, but depression is a real illness, and simply telling yourself (or having someone else tell you) to think positively is often not enough to treeat it. It might even do more harm than good; coming from someone else, it can read as dismissive or flippant in the face of someone facing an actual medical issue.

2. Keep Your Positivity Realistic

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I know, this one seems like a bummer, but hear me out. Yes, it's good to be optimistic! It's good to think positively about the future in general. However, if you let your positive thoughts get ahead of you, you can end up with unrealistic expectations that can lead to crushing disappointment if things go awry. Heck, unrealistic expectations can spoil even good things, simply because they don't meet the expectation you'd built up in your mind.

3. Don't Replace Thinking with Action

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You know that phrase that's always on motivational posters in gyms and offices, "The dream works if you do?" In terms of positive thinking, it's pretty much true. It's really tempting to believe that if you simply think about something long enough, the universe will pull it together for you, but I wouldn't count on it. In fact, if people spend too much time just thinking (or fantasizing) about a positive event in their future and don't actually take steps for that thing to come true, they can end up disappointed. If you want a promotion at work, sure, daydream about it... but also take active steps to make that happen. The same goes for relationships.. You can have the best intentions and hopes in the world, but sometimes you need to put your foot forward and put in some elbow grease to see the results you're imagining.

4. Remember to Go with the Flow

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Sometimes dreams change. Seriously. Maybe you had a certain goal for yourself earlier this year and your heart is still set on it. Have you evaluated it lately? Does it still fit your wants and needs? Do you think it will still make you happy? This goes for relationships with others as well. People change, and that's OK! Thinking positively about your future is not a bad thing, but it's important to remember to take off the rose-colored glasses and take in the world around you. Do you still want these experiences because you want them, or because you've built up a fantasy in your head you can't get out of? Going with the flow lets you adjust your perception of the world around you and helps make your fantasies a little more grounded in reality.

Now, in my opinion, positive thinking can do a lot of good. Many studies show that people who think positively have lower rates of stress, better immune systems, and happier marriages. Positive thinking can serve as a great means of staying on track with your goals and keeping your motivation levels up, even in the face of adversity. All of this said, I do think the research findings discussed here have some strong points: You have to stay realistic, even if you're really, really excited about something. Daydreams are lovely, but they're ultimately just that: Daydreams. If you're really set on something coming true in your future, make sure you balance your fantasies with actual steps towards it coming to fruition. And make sure you keep a level-head and realistic expectation, too; you don't want to set yourself up for disappointment just because not everything went according to plan.

Images: Alexander Shustov/Unsplash; Giphy (4)