July 11, 2024

Seeking Independence from the Tyranny of Positive Thinking

A sign showing the words "positive thinking" surrounded by flowers

The following is adapted from “In Good Faith: The tyranny of positive thinking” by Simantini Ghosh, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Ashoka University.

If you have ever experienced depression, chances are that you have been given advice by well-meaning friends, family members, and the world at large to focus on positive thinking. Everyone from Deepak Chopra to the friendly next-door neighbor have been telling the world repeatedly that the key to solving all our mental health problems is right here in our own hands. Apparently, through positivity, we can wave our magic wands and make depression go away. A whole industry of motivational and self-help resources, relying more often than not on questionable research, anecdotal evidence, and overgeneralization of scientific findings, offers techniques and strategies to combat depression. “Think Positive” is seriously suggested as a meaningful strategy to combat depression.

As you have probably already discovered there are some problems with this approach.

The first and most obvious flaw is the assumption that one can combat depression alone. It is a potentially dangerous message that depression can be coped with without the help of medication or therapeutic interventions. The mind is just as organic as a heart or a liver or a lung, something that needs care. A major mood disorder is a chronic illness. How seriously would you take someone who told a type 1 diabetic “don’t bother seeing a doctor, just exercise and control your diet”? Healthy lifestyle changes are always a good idea and have overall health benefits; they can enhance but not replace targeted treatment of clinical depression.

Depression is a generic word often used to describe various mental wellness issues that share some symptoms such as sadness, lowered mood, a sense of hopelessness and emptiness, but that doesn’t mean they are all the same condition. Each person’s depression is unique and therapies, both medical and psychological, need to be tailored for depressive symptoms to go into remission and prevent relapse. There can be no one universal therapy or coping strategy that works for everyone, and most importantly, therapies have to be administered by trained and experienced clinicians.

Positive psychology is such a buzzword in popular science lingo today. There are endless studies related to positive psychology, positivity, and positive thinking, yet a single comprehensive, case-controlled, blinded, randomized, control trial demonstrating clinically significant benefits in depression has never yet been conducted. Most of the benefits that have been reported are in samples drawn from people suffering from serious illnesses, for example, terminal cancer or heart disease, where the depression is secondary to the physical illness. This is very different from unipolar depression, dysthymic disorder, or major depressive disorder, which constitute the bulk of patients given a diagnosis of depression.

In the popular idea of positivity, there is almost no room for accommodating negative thoughts such as anger, frustration, or grief. However, these negative emotions have evolved through millennia and serve important functions. Casually brushing them aside in favor of positivity can make real mental health concerns much harder to treat in the long run. Positive psychology has blossomed into a billion-dollar industry. Sociologist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich speaks of “a corporate culture which a bubble of mandatory optimism and positive thinking”. According to Ehrenreich, the unbridled, shortsighted, and reckless push towards optimism and buying into the perception of a future where nothing could ever go wrong partly catalyzed the US financial meltdown of 2008. The Harvard psychologist Susan David has also about the dangers of positive thinking without emotional agility or first reckoning with the negative feelings in face of a challenge.

This is not to say positive psychology cannot help traditional therapies in patients suffering from depression. However, to promote it as an easy fix is irresponsible and dangerous. Simply asking a depressed individual to “think positive” without giving the person a cognitive restructuring framework and providing requisite skill sets is completely ineffective. It can actually worsen a depressed person’s sense of social isolation and over time, the tyrannical “think positive” pressure from peers, friends, and family can be damaging. Invalidating someone’s struggle by dismissing negative emotions can lead the individual to withdraw further from social contact and increase their distrust of their own judgments and feelings. Our conversations about depression and mental health need to acknowledge this clearly – depression has a biological basis in neurotransmitters (molecules used by neurons for chemical transmission of signals) and in the structural and functional aspects of the brain. It is laughable to expect a depressed individual to benefit from positivity when the “hardware” in the brain needed for processing positivity is already compromised or damaged by the depression itself.

This is not an effort to advocate negativity but a caution against the trap of buying into the myth of the unicorn of mental health – positive thinking. With depression and its devastating effects so widespread, and apparently growing, we already know too few people are seeking care or have access to appropriate care. Perhaps we should be spreading real awareness about mental health, rather than promoting ideas that pose as a do-it-yourself treatment plan for the mentally ill.

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