No, You Should NOT “Just Think Happy Thoughts”

Positive psychology has proven having a pessimistic mindset can lead to depression, while having an optimistic mindset can safeguard you against depression (see here).

The natural next step as I see it is to figure out how to make this knowledge of mindsets work for you.

But does being more optimistic mean you should start plastering your walls with positive motivational quotes? That you should accept and project "good vibes only"? Plaster a cheshire smile on your face? Just "stay positive"? 

That’s how it works, right? You just read the words and you’ll feel happy? 


Optimism is not relentlessly repeating upbeat phrases (ew) to force your way to happiness. Hollow mantras do not help you to feel better or move forward when things go wrong. 

If you ask me, life isn’t beautiful. Parts of life can be beautiful, sure, but parts of life can also be messy, painful, and downright horrific.  

Besides, optimism does not mean feeling happy all the time. 

The most beneficial mindset for your optimal mental health is one that sees both sides of the coin. 

Pessimism isn’t all bad. A healthy dose of pessimism lets you see things as they are without covering up the parts you might not want to see. But pessimism can become destructive if you allow it to infect and exaggerate your thoughts.

Optimism isn’t all good. It can lead to shirking blame and personal responsibility.

For example: 

You’ve had a fantastic week of sticking to your diet, until you head out for dinner with some friends on Saturday night. You check out the menu in advance so that you can enjoy your time out and feel good about sticking to your goals. 

When you get out, everyone wants to share plates. There are loads of fried appetizers, you feel left out for not ordering a drink so you cave to the first one…which leads to a second, picking off peoples’ plates, and…by the end of the night, you’ve totally blown it.

Enter the negative thoughts. "I have no willpower. Why couldn’t I just have stuck to what I wanted? I’ll never be able to lose weight. I’m disgusting." This is pessimism: ruminating, catastrophizing, thinking you’ll never succeed, and that one bad night is a reflection of your bad character.

However…if you’re too optimistic, after that night, you might think, "that was no big deal, I didn’t eat too much anyway. It was Mike’s birthday and it would have been rude of me to not partake." You make excuses for your behavior, shift the blame, and continue on your merry way, when in reality you need to make some changes if you really want to lose weight.

So if optimism isn’t the solution, how do you make it work for you? 

With these two steps:

Strike a balance. (Find the good in the bad.)

When you experience a setback, if you find yourself picking out and focusing on the negative aspects of what happened, beating yourself up, or feeling like you’ll be stuck forever, you need to take a moment to debate your negative thoughts. Start by asking the following questions:

What other outside influences might have affected this setback? Is this setback permanent, or will the situation change?

Using the example above, "I have no willpower" isn’t true, because you’ve just spent the whole week sticking to your diet. And, if you know that previously you may have eaten more than you did that night, that’s a step in the right direction. You have evidence of positive changes, and that the situation is not universally bad.

But you still have some work to do…

Use it to grow. (Find the bad in the good.)

After you’ve used the questions above to strike a balance between a pessimistic and optimistic mindset, figure out what you can do to improve whatever difficulty you’re facing.

For example: You’ve identified a challenging environment. What could you do to make better choices in a similar situation the next time? Maybe you’ll order your own plate of food, or order something healthy for the table that you can stick to instead. Maybe you’ll tell a friend you intend to only have one drink to increase your accountability and commitment.

Growth requires curiosity and experimentation.

Pessimism is like being locked in a cell of negativity: you are bad. This is your fault. You are stuck here. Things will never change. You’re not good enough. Nothing you do will matter. These are the thoughts that lead to depression.

Optimism, at least the way I see it, doesn’t give you a fake, sunny disposition. And it doesn’t give you an easy way out of your troubles.

But optimism does give you freedom.

It gives you opportunities to make more choices: how do you want to see things? Do you want to change? Do you want to grow?

With pessimism, you’re stuck. With optimism, you can choose to grow.

The freedom of choice is already available to you. But it does involve you being an active participant in the process.