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Why Positive Thinking Works Best When You Stay in the Here and Now

The pandemic is edging out “toxic positivity” in favor of authentic, grounded optimism.

Focusing on the present
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I used to understand “optimism” to be all about the future—the distant future, some great day when things are better, when I am better. But the more I learn about living with authentic positivity, the more I realize that being optimistic is really all about the here and the now.

During a global pandemic is a very handy time to make this shift in perspective.

But wait, you might be asking. Isn’t positive thinking supposed to be about imagining a good future, one in which our goals are reached, our dreams come true? Well, sort of. There is, of course, nothing wrong with visualizing a longed-for outcome or celebrating stepwise progress toward a goal. But research on positive thinking brings into question whether too much focus on a rosy tomorrow actually can hurt us today.

Gabrielle Ottingen, a psychologist and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, has explored this idea in depth. Participants in one study on weight loss, for example, felt happier in the short term, but more depressed in the long term when weight loss slowed. So the high optimism didn’t help them emotionally or physically.

Dreams of positive perfection can have the ironically stressful consequence of getting us stuck and undermining our progress, growth and inner peace. Instead of dwelling in aspiration, authentic positivity works best when it’s grounded in the here and now. 

In a time of pandemic, which is so fraught with worry about the future, we are best served to bring optimism home, to right here, right now. Our imagination timeline might need to shrink so that we can focus positive attention on making a connection with one loved one, doing one task from a long list or giving yourself space and permission to rest—today. 

So let’s fantasize about meeting ourselves where we are. Let’s dream that we are enough. And let’s call this positive self-support the most authentic optimism available to us. Let’s celebrate ourselves for recognizing and embracing it, right here, right now.

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