Don’t just Accentuate the Positive

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between”

The words from this Johnny Mercer song – which topped the billboard charts in 1945 with competing versions from Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters and Artie Shaw among others – resemble modern day personal development mantras.

Experiencing positive emotions is good for us. It widens our focus, broadens our attention and builds our psychological resilience.

But is it true that by eliminating negativity you can be happy and flourish?

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, warned that “optimism may sometimes keep us seeing reality with the necessary clarity” . Researchers have found that optimistic people tend to be physically healthier, less depressed, performed better at work, and live longer but the studies couldn’t prove cause and effect.

Perhaps people who are healthier and live longer are more positive and optimistic, or their outlook might be because of a third factor eg they were more energetic.

Pessimists often get a bad press. Defensive pessimists are people who worry about being stressed by exams or job interviews. However this worry helps them to prepare better for such situations. Psychologists at Wellesley College found that forcing defensive pessimist to “cheer up” rather than worry actually made their task performance worse.

And research amongst elderly people found that pessimists were less prone to depression after experiencing negative life events such as the death of a friend. Probably because they had time time to mentally prepare themselves.

Barbara Frederickson, a leading member of the positive psychology movement and psychology professor at the University of Michigan, found that people need to have some negativity in order for them to flourish ie “live within the optimal range of human functioning”.

She likens positive emotions to the fuel that is needed to flourish but said we don’t know how much we need or what the balance should be between experiencing positive and negative ones. So she asked participants to answer a questionnaire and then record their feelings on each of 20 emotions over 28 days.

The participants who scored higher on psychological and social functioning reported an average of 3.2 positive emotions for every negative one. These negative emotions acted as an “anchor for reality” and prevented a Pollyanna-ish, or over-optimistic, attitude to life.

So everyone needs some negativity to keep them grounded and the formula seems to be three times as many positives for every negative. And pessimism isn’t all bad either.

Source: Scientific American. May 2011 and the APA Monitor on Psychology. Frderickson’s research with Marcial Losada from the University of Brazil was published in the American Psychologist (vol 60 No 7) and presented to the APA Annual Convention in 2005.


4 thoughts on “Don’t just Accentuate the Positive

  1. […] addition 54% of those surveyed said they were optimists which is generally a good […]

  2. […] an optimist and look forward to things. I’m looking forward to having a holiday again one […]

  3. […] thinking about reinforcing the positive aspects of mental well-being – although that’s not as simple as it might […]

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