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Thinking Positively ...about this paper

Liz S's picture

I am going to finish my thesis. I am going to finish this paper. I am going to pass the MCATs (wonderfully, might I add) when I take them in a week. Why all the self-affirmations? Perhaps this seems like the ramblings of a senior who is ready to move on with life, but I might actually be helping myself to do better on each of the above. What makes this possible is the glory of positive thinking. The idea that we can think positively about accomplishing a task, or just about life in general, and consciously affect our unconscious. We can actually will ourselves to do better, through the power of our I-function.

Dr. Seligman, at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent his career researching and building the field of Positive Psychology. The goal of positive psychology is to focus on the mental health of normal individuals, on increasing the well-being of the average person (focusing on “mental-wellness” instead of mental illness). Moreover, it argues that you can actually go about making yourself happier (1).

There is research to back up these claims. Taylor and Brown (1988) found that even illusory positive thinking is associated with increased happiness, productivity and creativity. Perhaps more surprisingly, positive thinking is even correlated with better physical health (Scheier and Carver, 1987). One theory to explain these findings is the Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson, 2004). Fredrickson suggests that certain positive emotions (such as joy, love, etc.) have the “ability to broaden momentary thought—action repertoires and build enduring personal resources.” In other words, thinking and feeling positive broadens our capabilities for the future and increases the chances of positive outcomes. It provides you with the ability to plan affectively, which is extremely beneficial. Therefore, thinking positively now increases the likelihood of feeling positive far into the future. In the same vein, Carver and Scheier (1990) believe that positive emotions facilitate continued action. Thinking positively allows us to continue on, to accomplish more, and therefore to feel more contentment.

In terms of this web paper, I am going to turn it into an experiment of sorts. I am going to try my hardest to feel very positive about it, and perhaps I’ll end up with a better grade. If not, then positive psychology is obviously not for me. And hopefully I will not lose faith in my major 16 days before graduating with a degree in it.

In areas other than web papers, positive thinking may also come in handy. Research into sports practice has found that people who imagine themselves doing well actually perform better on the field. The effect is not as high as actual practice, but “virtual practice” is a significant improvement over no practice at all (sports medicine link). Therefore, with sports as in life, your conscious thoughts can alter your unconscious, leading to better performance and more positive outcomes.

The act of thinking positive, however, may entail more than wishing for a better grade. One experiment by Oettingen and Wadden (1991) looked at expectation, fantasy and weight loss outcomes in a group of obese adult women going through a weight reduction program. The researchers measured the women’s expectations of goal reaching and weight-related fantasies before, during and after treatment. They also monitored success in weight loss over the course of the program. The first set of results were not surprising—that optimistic expectations correlated with successful weight loss during the program. But the second finding was perhaps more surprising; negative fantasies about food also favored weight loss. In other words, women who fantasized more about breaking their diets and giving in to temptation actually did better in the weight loss program. This finding appears contradictory to the previous information on positive thinking. The women who had positive fantasies about doing well in the program actually performed worse.

So can negative thinking be positive? The authors suggest having high expectations is important for goal-reaching, but that negative fantasies are also important because they prepare people for possible negative situations. Envisioning a (negative) situation in which you give in and eat a piece of chocolate cake prepares you for that situation—it prepares you for the temptation and helps you avoid it. Therefore, preparing for high-risk situations through negative fantasies (but also positive expectations) has a positive effect on the outcome.

Perhaps then, it is important to refine the definition of “positive thinking.” It may more important to “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” in order to cover all your bases. It is possible that just wanting to do better on this paper is not enough—I must also be adequately prepared (for the best and for the worst). It is also equally likely that more information is necessary in order to better understand the types of positive thinking (expectations, fantasies, etc.) and what effects they all have. But the current research suggests that, given an adequate amount of preparation, optimism can then come in handy. It may not be possible to delude your i-function, but perhaps you can always put yourself in a better light—at least, to yourself. I am not sure I have enough optimism to will a professor to give me a better grade.



1. Positive Psychology @ UPENN

2. Taylor and Brown - Illusion and Well-being

3. Expectation, Fantasy and Weight Loss

4. Sports Medicine - Virtual Practice

5. Broaden and Build Theory

6. Carver and Scheier