Why Acting Positive is Better Than Thinking Positive

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on June 20, 2017

For years, self-help gurus and mindfulness experts have been preaching a simple mantra; if you want to improve your life, you have to change the way you think. Dream big and you will have success. Visualize yourself rolling in dollars and you'll become a millionaire. Unfortunately, science suggests that positive thinking might not work. In fact, the opposite may actually be true -  that if we act happy, we become happy, something psychologist Richard Wiseman calls the "as if" principle.

What's Wrong With Positive Thinking?

There's nothing wrong with positive thinking. In fact, a growing body of research links accentuating your bright side with all sorts of beneficial health outcomes from a lower risk of dying prematurely to boosting your heart health. Barbara Fredrickson, psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, suggests that positive emotions like contentment, joy, and love broaden our sense of possibility and open our minds to more options. The theory is that if you think positive, you open yourself up to potentially better outcomes than if you think in terms of a single, negative result.

The difficulty comes when there's a little too much wishful thinking about positive thinking. When mindset is lauded as the one special quality that enables people to live a better life, it puts focus on "visualizing" at the expense of "doing." There's no imperative to change your behavior in order to make progress towards goals.

And thinking about being better in order to become better seems a little, well, silly.

What Does the Research Say?

The research is clear - visualizing the "perfect" outcome leaves you worse off than if you had knuckled down and took proactive steps to achieve your goals.

  • In one University of California study, students who visualized themselves getting a high grade studied less and obtained lower marks than the control group.
  • In a New York University study, graduates who frequently fantasized about getting their dream job received fewer job offers and ended up with significantly smaller salaries.
  • In a German experiment, students who admitted to being secretly in love were less likely to realize their desires, the more time they spent fantasizing about the object of their affections.
  • In a study reported in the Wall Street Journal, overweight participants who fantasized about successfully losing weight lost 24 pounds less than those who did not indulge in such daydreams.

Why is positive thinking so damaging to successful outcomes? Perhaps those who fantasize about a remarkable outcome are ill-prepared for stumbling blocks, or perhaps they are reluctant to put in the effort required to achieve their goal. Whatever the reason, it's clear that starry-eyed dreaming isn't all it's cracked up to be.

But there is another way.

Doing is Better than Thinking

Back in 1884, renowned philosopher William James had a radical idea. James argued that if you behaved "as if" you were a certain type of person, you became that person. This flew in the face of the conventional wisdom, which believed that emotions begot actions and not the other way round. James' ideas were quickly brushed aside.

After lying dormant for nearly a century, James' theory was finally put to the test.

In the 1970s, researchers at Clark University asked participants to adopt certain facial expressions such as frowning or smiling. The results were astonishing. If you smiled, you instantly became happier. If you clenched your teeth, you became much more angry without any other stimulus.

Researchers from Harvard conducted a fascinating experiment with people in their seventies and eighties. Getting these seniors to behave as if they were 20 years younger made them walk faster, and led to massive improvements in memory, blood pressure, reaction times, eyesight, dexterity, and hearing. Acting "as if" they were younger literally knocked years off their true age.

Dana Carney, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, placed two groups of participants in two different poses -  a feet-on-the-table, hands-behind-the-head power pose, and a pose that was not associated with dominance. After just one minute, those adopting the power pose had significantly higher levels of testosterone in their bloodstream, suggesting that acting "as if" could even change the chemical makeup of our bodies.

How to Fake It 'Til you Make It

Regardless of your personality type, there's merit in acting "as if" you were the type of person you want to become. Here are some tips for overcoming the more bothersome behaviors that you might be grappling with.

Procrastinating Perceivers - Make a start. Spending just three minutes doing whatever it is you've been avoiding, and therefore acting "as if" you find the task interesting, means that you'll suddenly feel much more committed to completing the job.

Intimacy-avoiding Thinkers - Open up by sharing relatively safe information about yourself, such as what advice you'd give your younger self, or what one object you'd save in a house fire. Research suggests that talking intimately can make you feel more affectionate towards the person you're talking with.

Self-conscious Idealists - Strike a power pose. Pushing your shoulders back, your chest forward and literally walking tall is often enough to boost self-confidence. 

Conflict-avoiding Feelers - Sit on a hard chair. Research shows that sitting on a hard chair makes you more likely to negotiate better and drive a harder bargain (without worrying too much about what the other person is feeling). 

Guilty ....well, anyone - Wash away your sins. Unlikely as it sounds, researchers at the University of Toronto discovered that people who washed their hands after doing something immoral felt significantly less guilty than others.

Final Thoughts

Over 100 years ago, William James proposed a radical new approach to behavioral change. Decades of research has proven that his "as if" theory applies to every aspect of life, and can be used to help you grow more confident, worry less, influence more, make closer connections with people and even slow down the effects of aging. So take a deep breath and smile. It really could help you to live happily ever after!

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


SuzyQueue (not verified) says...

Hi there!

My "better self" emerged by achieving a toned down version of my younger being ... somewhat opposite the goals mentioned. I was very strong physically, quite artistic in many venues, and wore my INTJ negative emotions on my sleeve. Growing up around all boys, I was way too aggressive, selfish, competitive, and NOT a very happy young lady!

Even though I can be a tad passive-agressive as an older woman, my life as a home nurse -- including my mother's & brother's care through the end of their lives -- has given me so much insight into my own foibles ... and assets!

The "alone-ness" (quite different from lonliness) of having only a few distant family members left has been very hard. I am still a work in progress but very grateful for wonderful friends and every day of good or fair health. There's always room to make some needed changes in our lives, so don't give up hope!

~ Sue in Michigan

Peace Peter Anthony (not verified) says...

Ohh my God! This is so like its coming from me. Trust me, this piece is very interesting and i am glad someonee out there shares my perspective. Nice one.

Christorsa (not verified) says...

Very good article. Amy Caddy has a point saying: "You fake it until you become it."

Linsy (not verified) says...

I was just beginning the practice of day dreaming, although yes I agree with Jayne, day dreaming can be highly misleading if not coupled with action. Day dreaming kind of gives a false sense of hope and with the promises of the self help gurus where they claim that mere visualization can definitely lead you to your dreams, motivation to take action may actually get low. "Act as if" works much better. I have been chatting away to my husband much more cheerily than I actually feel and it's definitely bringing in more fun to our relation. Thanks for this article Jayne ??

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