Positive Thinking: Is It Always Best?

Positive Thinking: Is It Always Best?

Every day brings new choices.

Martha Beck

As the passing days and changing seasons

(…or UNchanging seasons…)

…bring events and circumstances that we can’t necessarily change…

It’s natural to shift focus to the things we CAN change.

Often, this begins with our thoughts.

We see it in the reminders we give ourselves– and others:

“Look on the bright side!”
“Think good thoughts!”
“Stay positive!”

But is positive thinking always the best, most helpful approach? 

Today we’re exploring 3 approaches to thinking about our experiences, and highlighting a few tips to help you decide which works best for you:

A case for positive thinking

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

Helen Keller

A habit of positive thinking certainly sounds like it should lead to enhanced emotional wellness.

And often times it does.

But why?

First of all, when we experience positive emotions (e.g., joy, contentment, love) we’re better able to see possibilities in our lives.

In other words, when things are going well, we can picture other things going well in the future.

And when things are a bit rough, we can see a way out.

But more importantly, positive emotions have been shown to broaden what experts call our “thought-action repertoire”:

Our ability to build skill sets that help us navigate life’s challenges, cope with difficulties, and set ourselves up for future successes.


  • develop a writing habit (even a brief one): journaling, blogging, or even making marginal notes on a regular basis has been linked to increased positive emotions, such as joy and contentment. (The only catch? To reap the benefits, you must write about a positive feeling, event, or experience.)
  • cultivate gratitude: keeping a daily record (e.g., in a notebook, in a jar, out loud before bed) of the things you’re thankful for produces greater positive emotion over time.
  • incorporate play & laughter: those of us who find ways to make silliness, fun, and intentional play part of our daily lives enjoy greater levels of positive emotion.


By identifying as “happy”, you’re more likely to enjoy a compound effect or “upward spiral”:

You’re happy, so you recognize new opportunities and acquire new skills, which lead to new successes, which result in more happiness.

And so on.

A case for strategic thinking

I never look at the glass as half empty or half full. I look to see who is pouring the water and deal with them.

Mark Cuban

No doubt about it:

A sunny outlook feels really good.

But, depending on your situation, the physiological and mental relaxation effects of simple positive thinking might actually work against you.

In particular, the positive fantasies we have about ourselves and our futures can drain us of the motivation we need to take action on our goals, according to psychological researchers at NYU.

The solution?

Researcher Gabriele Oettingen advocates the use of the acronym, “WOOP”: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.


  • wish: let yourself fantasize about an experience you want to have (e.g., performing well in a work presentation)
  • outcome: envision the best possible outcome if everything went as planned
  • obstacle: think through the potential pitfalls (e.g., you feel nervous, the technology fails just before your presentation)
  • plan: lay out a plan for what you can do to reduce the risk of those obstacles occurring (e.g., get extra rest the night before, arrive early, bring backup power cord)


Not all situations call for positivity.

Sometimes, the most effective approach is to get real about the obstacles you’re facing.

By connecting your desired future to your present reality, you are building a helpful, strategic structure around your daydreaming.

Thus, your daydreaming naturally flows into action-taking.   

An “alternative” to thinking

When we are able to keep the mind aware of the simplicity of basic physical sensations, it prevents us from getting caught up in the thoughts and stories which we might otherwise layer on top of that sensation.

Rohan Gunatillake

Certainly, a positive outlook can help ease tension and expand your view of what’s possible.

And when life starts throwing curve balls your way, strategic thinking can help you translate your dreams into action.

But what about when positive thinking feels a bit… unrealistic?

And strategic thinking feels a little… premature?  

If you find yourself in that place, know that it’s completely normal.

Sometimes, it’s not about finding the right way of thinking.

Sometimes, it’s not about trying to think at all.

It’s simply about becoming mindful.


  • When something happens (e.g., when you receive news, when you wake up, when you sit down to work), notice if any strong thoughts or reactions come up. Maybe there’s a feeling of anticipation. Or excitement. Or dread. Or doubt.
  • Notice if there are any clear physical sensations in your body right now. Maybe you can notice what your breath is like. Or what it feels like to blink your eyes. Or the feeling of contact between your body and the chair.
  • Pick whatever emotion you’re aware of and try to pinpoint where you’re feeling it in your body. Maybe it’s a knot in your stomach. Or a tension in your shoulders. Or a tingling in your legs.


When a situation feels jarring, painful, or overwhelming, just the act of noticing our response is a powerful and worthwhile step toward emotional wellness.

Putting it all into practice

The beauty of having multiple approaches to thinking is that you can take each day, each situation, as it comes and decide what approach will serve you best.

Picture this scenario, for example:

You wake up to a foot of fresh snow. (In April.)

Think through each of the following approaches:

  • positive thinking: What are the benefits to this weather? What kind of opportunities and adventures might it bring?
  • strategic thinking: How would you like this day to go? What hurdles will get in your way? What will help you overcome those hurdles?
  • mindfulness: How do you feel when you look out the window? Where do you feel it in your body? What would feel good to you right now?

Which approach will you take today?