Balanced thinking or positive psychology? What’s the difference?
Balanced thinking or positive psychology?
Some of you will have noticed the Myndflex strapline is ‘balanced thinking in action’. And perhaps you’ve wondered if we actually mean ‘positive psychology…’? If you have or if you’re simply interested to know more about why we talk about balanced thinking rather than positive psychology, read on.
A bit about positive psychology
If you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you have some personal or professional interest in the topic of positive psychology. If you’re new to this area or if you want a quick reminder positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing. It involves focusing on the positive aspects of life. Martin Seligman is widely credited as the pioneer of positive psychology dating back to 2000 when he used his Presidency of the American Psychological Association to draw attention to the topic. Seligman was keen to address a historical imbalance. Previously psychological theory, research and practice had been largely focused on negative aspects such as people’s illnesses, problems and difficulties. Positive psychologists argued that neglecting the positive aspects of people’s life experiences meant that people were missing valuable opportunities to thrive. And so a new subfield of psychology was born. And as many of you probably know it’s become very popular.
Is it possible to be too positive?
As the field of positive psychology has become established some authors and researchers have raised concerns that in correcting for a historical negative bias, psychologists have inadvertently created another problem, that of being overly positive. A new term ‘Positive Psychology Wave 2’ has started to appear, referring to a different approach. The essence of this evolution is that it’s helpful to embrace both the dark and the bright sides of our personalities and experiences. Proponents of this new approach favour integrating the challenging, difficult aspects of experience into our understanding of wellbeing and flourishing. (If you want to read more about positive psychology and wave 2 there are references at the end of this article.) As someone who has coached and facilitated people’s personal development for many years I have certainly valued the beneficial results that have come from people focusing on their strengths, successes and their positive intentions and actions. But… I have also noticed that the way individuals understand and use a positive psychology approach doesn’t always serve them well. By simply paying attention to the pluses and upsides it’s easy to miss important risks and downsides. And in the area of changing self-limiting thinking I’ve found that it’s often not enough to only focus on the positives. Let me illustrate my point with an example.
Seana has an important presentation coming up. She’ll be presenting to senior colleagues in a formal group meeting and she’s keen for it to go well. She’s working with a coach who uses a positive psychology approach to help her focus on pluses, e.g. her relevant past successes, her communication knowledge and skills, etc. Seana appreciates having her attention being brought to these as she realises she would otherwise have missed some of them and her opportunity to use them. She can also see the benefit of focusing her time and energy on things she can change and influence, rather than the things she can’t. But what if there is a downside or difficulty that she could anticipate and deal with but hasn’t? What if one of the senior leaders in her meeting has a habit of undermining people in public? What if Seana actually lacks some skills and techniques to deal with the situation she’s about to encounter? Or what if she is over-estimating her current capability and readiness to deliver the presentation effectively? Surely it would be good for her to being going into the meeting with her eyes open and properly prepared? If Seana was simply focusing on positives she might be saying something like this to herself: “It’s going to be great. It’ll be a breeze.” Whereas a more balanced approach might result in her saying this to herself “It could be a challenging session so I’ll make sure I’m well prepared for some tough questions” as well as a positive affirmation along the lines of “I know my stuff and the last presentation I did went well.”
In summary, there’s a subtle yet important distinction between using a positive approach and taking a balanced one. In line with Positive Psychology Wave 2 advocates, I see value in integrating the upsides and positives of our situations with an understanding of the genuine difficulties and downsides we face. My point of view is that the most important thing is for individuals to understand themselves and their situations fully so that they are well positioned to take helpful action. In this context both positive and negative aspects have their place. If someone is inclined to be very negative and pessimistic, correcting for their negativity bias is certainly likely to be appropriate and helpful for them. I would characterise this as taking a balanced approach, based on an informed and accurate appreciation of both the positives and negatives. So an alternative Myndflex descriptor could have been a ‘more positive’ approach, but I think ‘balanced’ has a better ring to it!
Here are a few suggested take-aways from this article
How balanced is your thinking and behaviour? Do you have a tendency to be overly positive and optimistic? Do you find yourself focusing on the negatives? (Our previous July blog has some ideas you might find useful if you’ve answered yes to either of these last two questions)
If you want to take a balanced approach make sure you pay attention to both the positive thoughts, feelings and opportunities you have as well as the risks, negatives and downsides in your situation
When you’re aware that something negative or difficult is bothering or affecting you, try focusing on it for a short time, asking yourself if there’s something that you could do to address the issue or make it less of a problem. If not, you might want to focus on accepting that it’s challenging for you. Something else you can try is distracting yourself by getting immersed in another activity or task.
Held (2004) “The negative side of positive psychology” Journal of Humanist Psychology
Lomas & Ivtzan (2016) “Mindfulness in positive psychology: The science of meditation and wellbeing” in press
Seligman (2002) “The pursuit of happiness: Bringing the science of happiness to life” in press
Sims (2017) “Second wave positive psychology coaching difficult emotions: Introducing the mnemonic of TEARS HOPE” The Coaching Psychologist
Wong (2011) “Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life” Canadian Psychology
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