I Tried Positive Thinking For 5 Days — Here's What Happened

photographed by Erin Yamagata.
If I rolled my eyes every time someone told me to "look on the bright side," my pupils would permanently be in the back of my head.
It's not that I'm necessarily a negative Nancy — just a realistic one. Sure, staying positive when life throws a wrench your way sounds like a great idea, but does it really help?
If you ask science, there is evidence that positive thinking has its benefits. A study from last year that looked at 70,000 women found that those who had higher optimism levels were less likely to die from major causes of death (such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection) than those who were less optimistic. The reason, researchers theorized, was that optimism is associated with other healthy behaviors and healthy ways of coping with life.
But is optimism really the key to a healthier, happier life? Joel Minden, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chico, CA, says that trying to be more positive can bring some much-needed balance to life for people who might have depression or anxiety and often have negative thought patterns.
Dr. Minden adds that if you tend get stuck in the defeatist mindset that nothing ever goes your way, you probably won't put much effort into trying to improve your situation, and if you think that people will think you're weird or awkward, you’ll probably feel anxious about talking to them.
So theoretically, on the flip side, believing that things will go your way and that people do like you will help you improve your life and friendships. As someone who does struggle with depression and who could probably benefit from a little more optimism, I decided to try to positive-think my way through life for five days. I'll spare you the details of my trying to find "the bright side" of every encounter I had, but to say the least, it wasn't as easy as I thought it'd be.
Read on for a few things I learned from my five days of (trying to) think positively.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Being optimistic doesn't work for everything.

In retrospect, I'm thankful I tried this experiment during a week where I was moving into a new apartment. After all, what better time to take up positive thinking than when you're going through one of the most stressful things you can do in life? That being said, all the positive thinking in the world couldn't help me the night before moving day, when I was on the floor, in the middle of a pile of three boxes that I still needed to pack (boxes that, I should add, weren't factored into the plan I negotiated with my moving company).

Sometimes, things just suck.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
But positive thinking does help you face daunting situations.

Listen, I'm not saying that my positive thinking is the reason my moving company didn't charge me for three extra boxes, but if, as Dr. Minden says, part of positive thinking means believing that everything will work out, I'd like to think that belief helped me stay calm while explaining to the movers that I'd underestimated my ability to hoard.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Having a mantra helps.

I should also mention that in the course of these five days, my parents were also visiting from California, and staying with me — in my new, tiny studio apartment.

As you can imagine, a lot of my positive thinking boiled down to a few mantras: Look on the bright side! You actually get to see your parents more than once this year! Look on the bright side! Soon they'll be flying home, and they won't be rearranging all your things or commenting on the size of the apartment!
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
But you really have to believe what you're telling yourself.

This was the biggest catch for me: You can't always fake it 'til you make it.

"Positive thinking doesn’t benefit us when we don’t truly believe what we try to tell ourselves," Dr. Minden says. "In addition, when our experiences are inconsistent with our so-called positive beliefs, we’re likely to feel defeated."

In other words, over-exaggerating how great you feel ("I feel amazing and every day is better than the last!") or overshooting your distance when you're telling yourself things will work out ("I’ll ace this exam without trying!") might not actually do a whole lot of good. And in my case, telling myself that my entire move would go smoothly did little to actually reassure me or assuage my anxieties about all the things that could go wrong.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Maybe it's more about thinking flexibly instead of positively.

Sometimes, looking on the bright side just feels unrealistic or unhelpful. And sometimes, you really just have to give into a bad mood and let yourself feel all the crappy feelings, and that's okay.

"By acknowledging both positive and negative aspects of our experiences, we create more possibilities for emotional responses, and we set ourselves up to take action to address current problems," Dr. Minden says.

For someone not naturally inclined to see the best in every situation, this is reassuring — as Dr. Minden puts it, a healthy mindset is really about balance, not blind optimism.

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