Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Positive thinking as a cause of emotional problems

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Positive thinking as a cause of emotional problems:
What are the risks of positive thinking to emotional well-being?


Figure 1. Global subjective well-being. Positive thinking can lead to higher well-being.

Have you ever wondered if you are overly motivated to use positive thinking to make yourself feel better? Have you ever thought that focusing on positive thinking could have detrimental effects on your emotional well-being? This chapter explores positive thinking and how it can have negative effects on emotional well-being, through investigating biological processess, overvaluing happiness, the high expectations around positive emotions and the limitations of positive psychology.

Positive thinking[edit]

Positive thinking involves holding positive expectancies towards one's future (Scheier & Carver, 1993). This in itself is a intrinsic factor of the trait optimism. Research suggests that optimists are better liked than pessimists, which may be partly because optimists work harder and persevere at their social relationships (Carver & Scheier, 2014), are able to recover from depression more quickly (Ji, Holmes, & Blackwell, 2016), and have a higher quality of life (Conversano, Rotondo, Lensi, Della Vista, Arpone, & Reda, 2010). Quality of life refers to satisfaction of personal desires as well as individual circumstances around health, wealth, and social conditions, which could contribute to individuals leading happier lives. In 1991, Seligman turned his focus from learned helplessness to learned optimism, investigating positive thinking and focusing on positive human functioning resulting in the birth and growth of positive psychology[factual?].

Emotional well-being[edit]

Emotional well-being refers to ones everyday experience that make life satisfying or unsatisfying (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). Emotions are multidimensional. They are in-of-themselves and intertwined distinct patterns of brain activity, purposeful, biological, expressive and communicative, subjective, and short-lived feelings (Reeve, 2015). Biological, cognitive and socio-cultural are the central aspects of emotion. This chapter will mainly explore the biological aspect.

Biology of positive thinking and emotion[edit]

Areas within the brain process and control emotions. These include the amygdala, ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens, and prefrontal cortex.

Figure 2. The anatomical brain structure - the amygdala

The amygdala's function is to detect, learn about, and respond to emotionally significant and aversive events (specifically those emotions related to self-preservation), and to form stimulus-emotion associations regarding rewards (Reeve, 2015). For an individual gambling in a casino, the amygdala generates positive emotions with each win and negative emotions with each loss[factual?]. An individual who scores high on the trait optimism, may continue gambling regardless of the loss due to positive expectancies and persistence[factual?].

The ventral tegmental area creates and releases dopamine (neurotransmitter involved with pleasure or reward) which extends to the nucleus accumbens where pleasure is generated. From here, the prefrontal cortex is activated where pleasure or reward is consciously felt. High levels of dopamine result in more positive emotion, approach motivations, and learning (Reeve, 2015). Anticipation of reward or pleasure alone can cause dopamine to be released. This anticipation can be in the form of expecting good news or hoping to see an old friend. These feelings are intrinsic parts to being optimistic thus making optimism rewarding for an individual.

Figure 3. Optimism and positive thinking

Optimism depicts the generalised tendency to have positive beliefs and expectations regarding the future. An optimistic person remains positive about what is going on around them, is generally confident and hopeful about what the future holds. Activity in the left hemisphere is biologically designed to enable optimistic thoughts to thrive and flourish. Optimistic thinking and positive experiences that strengthen this thinking is largely associated with and incorporated into neural systems within the left hemisphere (Hecht, 2013).

Table 1.

Areas within the brain and their role in emotion

Area of the brain The role in emotion
Amygdala Detect, learn about, and respond to emotionally significant and aversive events (specifically those emotions related to self-preservation), and to form stimulus-emotion associations regarding rewards (Reeves, 2015).
Ventral Tegmental Area and Nucleus Accumbens The ventral tegmental area creates and releases dopamine while the nucleus accumbens generates pleasure. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward.
Prefrontal Cortex The prefrontal cortex that produces a conscious feeling of pleasure. Activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex is associated with positive emotion (Reeves, 2015).

Positive thinking and positive psychology[edit]

Positive Psychology is the study of positive human functioning focusing on well-being, satisfaction with the past, optimism for the future, and happiness in the present (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

Development and influencers[edit]

Humanistic psychology lead to the development of positive psychology. Humanistic Psychology emphasises the inherent human need to self-fulfillment and self-actualisation. Carl Rogers (1995) and Abraham Maslow (1954) are major contributors to humanistic psychology and in-turn, positive psychology.

Martin Seligman (2000) is widely accepted as the father of positive psychology. Other influencers include Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and Christopher Peterson (2006).

Figure 4. Martin Seligman - the father of Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman[edit]

Martin Seligman's earlier work focused on what could be viewed as the opposite of positive psychology, learned helplessness. This refers to an individuals feeling powerless to change a situation that is changeable. Martin Seligman has developed several clinical tools and has devoted much of the last 20 years of his career developing and furthering the study of positive psychology and in particular the usefulness of positive emotion, positive character traits, and positive institutions.

Mihaly Csikszentmihayi[edit]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a positive psychologist and is well known for his work in the state of 'flow'. Flow refers to a state optimal experience including heightened focus and immersion in play, art and/or work. This work has influenced positive psychologist and individuals in the business, performing arts, government and education realms. Mihaly Csikszentmihayi is also the co-author of Positive Psychology: An introduction (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

How can positive thinking lead to emotional problems?[edit]

The main ways that positive thinking lead to emotional problems are through unrealistic expectations and overvaluing happiness[factual?]. This part of the chapter explores these two in-depth.

The underlying belief that all individuals and cultures need self-fulfillment and self-actualisation poses as a limitation to positive psychology. A study by Fung, Isaacowitz, Lu, Wadlinger, Goren and Wilson (2008) found that older Hong Kong Chinese individuals looked away from happy facial expressions, suggesting that they do not show attentional preferences towards positive stimuli.

Figure 5. Low self-esteem

It is argued that an individual's accurate and realistic perceptions of the world, the self, and the future are essential for their mental health and well-being; yet it is suggested that illusions of excessive positive self-evaluation, unrealistic optimism, extravagant perception and assessment of control and mastery are typical features of normal human thought (Taylor & Brown, 1988). These are described as positive illusions being psychological health by filtering and distorting incoming information in a positive or unthreatening manner (Taylor & Brown, 1988).

Imagine that you have very low self-esteem and the self-help book you are reading asks you to repeat the phrase "I am beautiful". This message isn't close to your position or beliefs, is it? If you were to repeat a different message that is closer to your beliefs, such as "I sometimes look pretty", the message would be more persuasive. This is knows as the latitude of acceptance. Messages outside your latitude of acceptance can backfire and strongly reinforce your original position (Kunczik, 2008)

Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson (2005) suggest four happiness exercises as a way to employ positive psychology. These include writing down three things that went well at the end of each day, delivering a written letter of gratitude to someone, writing down a time where the individual was high functioning and how this functioning was made possible by individual properties, and identify strengths and new ways to use them. These interventions may produce unwanted results when administered in high doses. It is suggested that a intervention where individuals write down three things that went well at the end of each day, may produce more sadness and distress when an individual is unable or finds it challenging to list 3 things concluding that they must not have 3 things in their life to be grateful for[factual?]. This kind of task also may become repetitive, stale, and burdensome, and produce poor well-being outcomes[factual?]. People that are overly motivated to be happy may become dissatisfied and result in reduced happiness when interventions such as expressive gratitude does not elicit the expected level of happiness (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011).

Oher[spelling?] studies have suggested that if people think others expect them to feel happy or positive emotions, they are more likely to experience negative emotions more frequently and intensely (Bastian, Kuppens, Hornsey, Park, Koval & Uchida, 2012). This is congruent with positive self-statements e.g. "I'm a lovable person", have resulted in individuals with low self-esteem feeling worse about themselves (Wood, Perunovic & Lee, 2009) as these individuals may not believe they are lovable. This study also showed that people with high self-esteem who repeated this statement only felt marginally better about themselves.

If an individual's motivation and standards for reaching their goal (happiness or well-being) are too high, and what is meant to be a positive exercise results in a negative feeling, more negative effects and outcomes for well-being can prevail. Kindness, for example, can trigger a negative response when the kindness is too generous or onerous such as giving a friend a couch for their new home or spending a day helping them move into their new home. The individual giving kindness may become resentful or feel exploited, the receiver may not show the appreciation that the giver expects and as such, the give may not engage in these acts in the future. Further to this, a TED Talk titled ‘keep your goals to yourself' (Sivers, 2010) details how goals are less likely to be achieved when goals are shared with others. The sharing of a goal bring social gratification and social acknowledgement which allows the brain to mistake talking for doing.

Overvaluing happiness is also associated with both self-reported and clinician-rate depressive symptoms amongst clinical populations (Ford, Shallcross, Mauss, Floerke & Gruber, 2014), adding to the suggestion that individuals who are preoccupied with wanted to be happy and are too highly motivated to become happier leads to deceased[spelling?] well-being. This kind of intense positive thinking may also lead to the repression of negative emotions which can lead to emotional problems and subsequently emotional problems. Within a clinical setting, treatment adherence, and more adaptive responses to peer rejection were associated with negative emotion (Coifman, Flynn & Pinto, 2016) thus highlighting a need for negative emotion in this environment.

In western cultures, positive emotions and positive thinking are widely accepted as pro-social whereas negative thoughts are met with judgement causing an individual to feel shame. This results in a need by individuals to feel happy and positive. In contrast, one persons positive emotions may be the cause of another persons emotional well-being. In a office setting, an employee is distressed due to a colleague being blunt and seemingly rude. The manager of this employee meets this problem with positivity and optimism stating that "it is not likely to occur in the future" resulting in the employee feeling as though the issue has not been resolved and that their feelings of distress are invalid. The positive thinking and response of the manager in this situation has caused emotional distress for the individual.



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Positive psychology is...?

a psychological perspective that emphasises one's inherent drive towards self-actualization
the theory of personality organisation and personality development
the study of positive human functioning focusing on well-being, satisfaction with the past, optimism for the future, and happiness in the present
the science of behaviour and mood


Four happiness exercises suggested to employ positive psychology include all of the following except...?

interventions of gratitude
writing three things down at the end of each day
discussing times of high functionality
identifying strengths and new ways to use them

Possible areas for future research[edit]

Explore links between optimism/positive thinking and physiological responses to guide treatment development[grammar?]. This may include localising brain activation around optimism and positive thinking and developing treatment for psychopathology. This could involve on-going activation or monitoring and would need in-depth assessment of if this is ethical[grammar?]. Furthermore, future research may explore ways optimism manifests itself, not only cross-culturally, but also across politic[spelling?] systems, age, genders e.g. you may be less optimistic for your future as the life expectancy age in my country is 55 years old and I just turned 50. Does optimism manifest similarly for those aged 80 living in Mexico as it does for those aged 80 living in Australia?


The importance of complexities surrounding individual differences of personality and psychology should not be understated when looking at the negative impacts of positive thinking. These differences mean individuals respond differently to situations[vague]. This chapter has considered how the role of positive thinking and how this can have a negative impact on emotional well-being. The results show that too much of a good thing can have negative impacts. Overvaluing happiness, a high motivation to become happy, and expectations can produce unwanted emotional responses. Positive thinking does however have a range of positive and pro-social consequences that should not be disregarded and the consequences for too much negative thought can have undesirable effects to well-being. It is all about balance and finding what works for the individual. This chapter contributes to personal growth and development through self-awareness and understanding the implications and risks of positive thinking on emotional well-being.

See also[edit]


Bastian, B., Kuppens, P., Hornsey, M. J., Park, J., Koval,. & Uchida, Y. (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: The role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12, 69-80.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2014). Dispositional optimism. Trends Cogn Sci, 293-9.

Coifman, K. R., Flynn, J. J., & Pinto, L. A. (2016). When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment. Motivation and Emotion, 40, 602-624.

Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Della Vista, O., Arpone, F., & Reda, M. A. (2010). Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being. Clin Pract Epidemiology of Mental Health, 6, 25-29.

Ford, B. Q., Shallcross, A. J., Mauss, I. B., Floerke, V. A., & Gruber, J. (2014). Desperately seeking happiness: Valuing happiness is associated with symptoms and diagnosis of depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 890-905. 10.1521/jscp.2014.33.10.890

Fung, H. H., Isaacowitz, D. M., Lu, A. Y., Wadlinger, H. A., Goren, D., & Wilson, H. R. (2008). Age-related positivity enhancement is not universal: Older chinese look away from positive stimuli. Psychology and Aging, 23, 440-446.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 222-233.

Hecht, D. (2013). The neural basis of optimism and pessimism. Exp Neurobiol, 22, 173-199.

Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 107, 164889-16493.

Kunczik, M. (2008). Latitude of Acceptance. The International Encyclopedia of Communication, 10.1111/b.9781405131995.2008.x

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Rogers, C. R. (1995). What motivation and acceptance mean to me. Journal of Humantistic Psychology, 35, 7-22.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. Am Psychology, 60, 410-421.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1993). On the power of positive thinking: The benefits of being optimistic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 26-30. 10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770572

Sivers, D. (2010, July). Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself [Video file]. Retrieved from

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.$00.75

Wood, J. V., Perunovic, E., Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20, 860-866.

External links[edit]