"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Of Negative Thinking


A recent study reported in the New York Times (10.25.14) by Gabriele Oettingen suggests that the power of positive thinking is not all it cracks up to be.  Thinking good thoughts and dreaming of happy, positive outcomes may rob you of your psychic power.
As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.
My aunt was a very negative person – a loving, caring, and intelligent woman who nonetheless thought the worst of everyone and everything.  She had a theory that if you assumed the worst would happen and worried it to death, you could fret it away.  Although she was born long before the New Age, she believed that there was such a thing as psychic energy, and that singing a happy tune with a happy face only diluted the flows of natural power coursing through the limbic system.

Her husband on the other hand wanted no part of my mother’s morose worries.  “Why worry twice?”, he always admonished.  “If the diagnosis comes back positive, then you can start”.

She was right.  The world is not rosy, there are few people you can trust, and there is more misery in the pipeline than Alaskan crude.  Most importantly her advice on harnessing worry has worked every time.

Take a simple example – baggage claim.  A colleague of mine traveled to the world’s most benighted places.   He waited in interminable customs and immigration lines, was bitten by malarial mosquitoes.  He was shoved and jostled, pushed and yelled at by officials and passengers.  He was shaken down, intimidated, and threatened and asked for bribes, cigarette money, and “something for Momma”.



Yet through all of this, nothing ever happened. His luggage  was never lost,  He was never held up and robbed of his money, passport, and belongings.  His suitcase was routinely opened and searched, but nothing was ever taken.  Why was he so fortunate when fellow travelers reported cash stolen? Or spent hours in a blood-stained Immunization Control rooms?


He was untouched, he said, because he worried. He had an elaborate procedure, much appreciated in Africa with all its totems, gris-gris, incantations, and charms.  If his bags did not appear on the first carousel go-round, he crossed his fingers on both hands.  He would never get his bags, his toiletries, medicines, and radio.   He would be marooned in Kinshasa, Lagos, Luanda, or Sana’a.

He began to pace around the carousel first clockwise and then counterclockwise, staring at the tattered rubber flaps and the gaping dark hole of the baggage chute.  After five more minutes, panic set in, and he began to recite Hail Marys, promising God and himself that he would never again travel to these godforsaken places. “Please end this Purgatory”, he  prayed.


It worked.  All the adrenaline, limbic juices, and psychic riot staved off the worst. His system worked for hotel reservations, midnight cab rides, thunderstorms on departure day, and flight cancellations that would disrupt his complicated itinerary home.  The rainstorms abated, the flight left late, but left. The hotel did indeed keep his reservation.  He always arrived home safe, sound, never kidnapped , and only a little weary.

As the Times article suggests, the power of negative thinking drains the batteries.


My colleague was convinced that worry kept cancer away. Obsessing about every new dot on his skin, raspy throat, or slight disruption in urinary function did the trick. At an age when most people were keeling over, he remained upright and mobile.

Many women who should have gotten pregnant by him never did thanks to his obsessive worry and negative thinking; many more who should have betrayed his confidence never did.  Known gossips and rumor-mongers were quiet about his indiscretions.



Ms. Oettingen hedges her bets, however, for she knows how many people like to think rosy.
What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.
This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments.
Nevertheless, after years of practice, I am convinced that worry works. "What, me worry?".  You bet.



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