For over 150 years, a variety of would-be do-gooders have told people (usually charging them a fee along the way) that the only way to improve their lives is to think positively about themselves. Frenchman Emile Coue told his 19th-century readers to repeat to themselves “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” Englishman Samuel Smiles admonished his Victorian readers readers that “Heaven helps them who help themselves.” American Norman Vincent Peale also extolled the virtue of “positive thinking.”
This astonishingly simple idea has worked its way into all manner of psychotherapy, educational theory, and everyday life. And like most astonishingly simple ideas, it turns out to be false. Indeed, it turns out to be harmful.
According to an article in the BBC’s health section, Canadian researchers have discovered that “repeating positive self-statements may … backfire for the very people who need them the most.” According to the BBC:
The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.”
They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves.
In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.
However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.
The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.
They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.
Of course, anyone with an iota of sense always knew that high self-esteem was more a little more difficult to achieve than simply declaring it, but it is always nice to have the obvious backed up by rigorous science.