A study conducted by Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada seems to to show that the power of positive thinking cuts both ways: if you think highly of yourself to begin with, positive thinking reinforces your sense of well-being, but you start with low-self-esteem, positive thoughts meant to encourage you only end up depressing you further. The researchers
questioned a group of 68 men and women using long-accepted methods to measure self-esteem. The participants were then asked to spend four minutes writing down any thoughts and feelings that were on their minds. In the midst of this, half were randomly assigned to say to themselves “I am a lovable person” every time they heard a bell ring.
Immediately after the exercise, they were asked questions such as “What is the probability that a 30-year-old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?” to measure individual moods using a scoring system that ranged from a low of zero to a high of 35. Past studies have indicated that optimistic answers indicate happy moods.
As the researchers report in Psychological Science, those with high self-esteem who repeated “I’m a lovable person” scored an average of 31 on their mood assessment compared with an average of 25 by those who did not repeat the phrase. Among participants with low self-esteem, those making the statement scored a dismal average of 10 while those that did not managed a brighter average of 17.
Dr Wood suggests that positive self-statements cause negative moods in people with low self-esteem because they conflict with those people’s views of themselves. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, she argues, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable find saying that they are so unbelievable that it strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it. Given that many readers of self-help books that encourage positive self-statements are likely to suffer from low self-esteem, they may be worse than useless.