If there’s a style of thinking that promotes happiness, it might seem silly to some that we ever take any other perspective.
But you wouldn’t use a Ferrari as a tow truck or a Prius where you need an 18 wheeler.
There are disadvantages to positive thinking, advantages to negative thinking and to be at our best we should use the right tools at the right time. Specifically, in a competitive context, happy isn’t helpful.
The problem is that what’s good for your well-being is not necessarily going to be effective in a competitive context, or help you sustain the drive to achieve your goals. In the well-being realm, traits such as ambition, dominance, and perfectionism are considered psychological maladies that need to be treated. But during a performance, or when striving to achieve goals, they can all be adaptive. It bears repeating: the mental states needed to compete are not always socially palatable. When the object is to compete, positive psychology becomes a handicap. Its Panglossian ban on negative thought denies the value of critical thinking about past performance, which is necessary in order to learn from one’s mistakes and alter strategy going forward.
Ever see the stare down before a boxing or MMA match? Research shows fighters who smile are more likely to lose:
Consistent with the researchers’ predictions, fighters who smiled more intensely prior to a fight were more likely to lose, to be knocked down in the clash, to be hit more times, and to be wrestled to the ground by their opponent (statistically speaking, the effect sizes here were small to medium). On the other hand, fighters with neutral facial expressions pre-match were more likely to excel and dominate in the fight the next day, including being more likely to win by knock-out or submission.
Positive visualization can hurt achievement:
In longitudinal studies, Gabriele Oettingen, professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, concluded that when jobseekers spend time visualizing their dream job, two years later they are less likely to have found employment in any job. (If they someday do find a job, it will be for lower pay and lower recognition than the jobs held by those who had spent less time daydreaming about their careers.) Women who fantasize about a secret crush never date him; in fact, five months later, they are less likely to be dating anyone at all.
Overall, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10 who fares the best in terms of achievement? It’s not the 10’s. Be an 8:
When individuals complete happiness surveys that use a one to ten scale, those scoring around an eight often tend to fare the best in achievement. Why might the eights of the world outperform their friends and neighbors who are nines or tens? It could be that eights benefit from the creativity and energy of happiness, but also maintain a touch of worry that helps to motivate them… Similar results can be found in an analysis of a huge sample by Shigehiro Oishi, who analyzed the satisfaction scores of over 100,000 respondents from all over the world. Those who scored well on happiness – the sevens, eights, and nines on a ten-point scale – had higher incomes and more advanced educations than both the tens and those who were unhappy.
So is there a place for positive thinking when you’re trying to be your best? Yes. It can give hope and motivation:
Is there really no place here for positive thinking? Well, there is— but its real benefit is boosting and reviving motivation. Dr. Paul Dennis is a University of Toronto sports psychologist who also works with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. During the off-season, when there’s a lot of training and not much payoff, he has players visualize a peak moment in their careers—“ It’s very important that it be based on what really happened, not a naïve, delusional vision,” he said. “I have them visualize the game, visualize the crowd, celebrating with teammates afterward, and being with their family after the game. The visualization gives them hope. If it happened once, it can happen again.” He does this to reinvigorate their drive and persistence.
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