The mental health of Americans is an area of concern at the moment for many social psychologists. Thanks to economic hardship, mounting political tensions, and what feels like and endless cycle of bad news, our happiness levels are at an all-time low. And due to the rise of technology addiction, many Americans feel increasingly isolated, with younger generations found to be the most plagued by loneliness.
Given the sharp rise of suicide rates here in the U.S., mental health has become the focus of the wellness community, and positive thinking has re-emerged as a popular trend to battle all of the negativity swirling around us. And, indeed, maintaining an optimistic “glass half-full” attitude has been shown to reduce stress, boost your immune system, decrease depression, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, increase your lifespan, and help you cope in times of extreme duress.
But, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, it could also make you a more selfish person, as well.
Researchers from Germany and Switzerland looked at fMRI brain images and analyzed survey responses from ten men and 14 women who describe themselves as positive thinkers. What they found was that these positive thinkers were prone to accepting good news and rejecting bad news, which is a good thing. They also found that both of these actions increased activity in the reward region of their brains, which is also a good thing.
The researchers also found that these participants were more likely to suffer from what’s called an “optimism bias”—the belief that it’s less likely for something bad to happen to them than to other people. While it sounds like a nice way to live, this bias can prevent people from taking precautionary measures when making big decisions, and has often been credited with what makes some politicians brashly decide to go to war. It’s also a kind of self-centered, which might not be that much of surprise, given that a recent study found that people who practice yoga—which is centered around positive thinking—often have inflated egos and a sense of superiority over other human beings.
That doesn’t mean that you should do away with positive thinking or yoga, both of which have been proven to have a wide variety of health benefits. It’s just important to consider other viewpoints and outcomes, and to realize that, no matter how much positive thinking you engage in, you’re still a human being that is not impervious to tragedy.
“People do have positive value for their positive beliefs,” Dr. Bojana Kuzmanovic, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research and co-author of the study, told ABC News. “It is just about being aware. These influences are present in all the decisions we make, and may put us in danger of making biased decisions. When making important decisions, we should consider collaborating with others to understand different perspectives.”
For more on how to use positive thinking the healthy way, don’t worry: I Took Yale’s Happiness Course and Here’s Everything I Learned.
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