Positive thinking is a word I often hear. Patients who are distressed that they are not able to rid themselves of their negative thoughts (and therefore cultivate positive ones), attendants who explain that they counselled their child/ the patient to develop positivity, newspapers filled with articles on how to develop positive thinking, and finally a lot of people curiously asking me how I think positively when I hear stories of depression in my practice!

There are reams written about the benefits of thinking positive, being optimistic and hence, achieving happiness. Some theories even go on to suggest that it is “positive thinking” that leads to a stupendously successful or an extraordinarily happy life. It is easy to get hooked on to such theories and trash negative thinking all together.

This debate on positivity and negativity reminds me of the cartoon Winnie the pooh, where we are introduced to Tigger the tiger, who is eternally optimistic and bounding off into the unknown without caring for the risks. We also have an Eeyore, the donkey, being the exact opposite and spotting the minutest hiccup in an otherwise happy situation! Both seem to be happy in their own twisted way.

So, is it wise to think positively or negatively? An Eeyore or Tigger?

Turns out, there is a lot of literature on that too.

Well, positive thinking in the psychological viewpoint is not actually thinking of rainbows and roses all the time. It  means that we learn to approach unpleasant situations and outcomes in a more productive and pleasant way. Practicing positive self affirmations, knowing your strengths, taking risks, believing that you are unique and hence have something to share with the world are a few ways by which positive thinking can be practiced.

We live in busy times. There are a very few listening ears or sensible advisors that we can find when we face problems. In such times, developing self reliance, thinking positively and reacting to unpleasant situations realistically is a live saver. So yes, positive thinking helps.

At the same time, it can also lead to the development of a complacent attitude not conducive to growth and the motivation to do better. If an individual is very happy being where he is (for example, in his job) he will not strive hard to reach the next level (a promotion). He may be scared of the distress (too much work or responsibility) that comes with going out of his comfort zone and hence not try at all!

Too much of positivity can also make for an over confident individual who lives in his own la la land of self absorption. He might find it hard to recognise failure even if it smacks him in the face and make all the wrong decisions, believing that at some point things will work out due to positive thinking!

It is here, that some amount of Eeyorehood comes handy!

Negative thoughts are not always bad. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas Deiner in their book “The upside of your dark side” argue that while mindfulness, kindness, optimism and positive thoughts can take us far, they cannot take us all the way. Negative thoughts like guilt, self doubt or jealousy can make us feel uncomfortable, but are very very useful in their own way.

Negative thinkers, due to their above traits can pay more attention to detail and are less easy to fool. When they start a project, they are liable to think of all the ways that it can go wrong. They trust sparingly, so end up choosing the right and best people. They can therefore, make airtight plans which bode very well for success. For example, if the person is worried that his business might not do well, he can think of a hundred strategies beforehand to make it work. The chances of success increase because he would have thought of all the loopholes and discovered strategies to cover them. In fact, this method is used by psychologists to help patients to prepare for anxiety provoking situations or events, and is called “defensive pessimism” in medical jargon.

But too much of negative thinking ,well, is negative! Thinking of negative consequences all the time or berating ourselves or our life can lead to stress, mental illness and make us too paralyzed to take any productive action.

The moral of the story is that, thoughts are a product of our mind. They include both the positive and the negative in a sort of yin and yang balance. Sometimes life sucks and there may be a hike in our negative thoughts. Sometimes, things flow and we may be in a very zen state of mind. The trick is to develop the ability to feel a full range of emotions without feeling guilty about it.

Try not to suppress negative thoughts with false positivity. Accept them. Understand your reality and fact check. Sit down and find ways to sort, solve or move on. Plough through uncomfortable situations. Take help. If the situation eases, a natural sense of positivity will return. Then revel in it. But do not take it too far.

Finally, to answer the million dollar question of whether to be a Tigger or an Eeyore, it definitely seems better to be a Tig-ore!!

P.S. : This does not apply to those suffering from clinical depression or other such disorders, where the illness does not allow for positive or problem solving behaviour. That being the case, the person needs to consult a mental health care giver ASAP.

About the Author

Preethi Shanbhag


My name is Preethi Shanbhag. I am a psychiatrist and a mother. In my free time I love to read, write, travel and cook.

View All Articles