Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Happy Thoughts Could Make You Sad

posted by Beyond Blue


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You know how I’ve been telling you all to head to the mirror and say to the gorgeous creature staring back at you: “I’m good enough, I’m strong enough, Gosh darn it, people like me!” Yah, well, forget about that now.

Because there is new research that says happy thoughts might make you sad. According The Economist:

Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada and her colleagues designed a series of experiments [in which] they 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. [Please don't try this at home.]

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 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.

Great news for us, right?

I can’t help but think this research is related to the research study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that used high-definition brain imaging to reveal a breakdown in the emotional processing that impairs the depressive’s ability to suppress negative emotions. In fact, the more effort that depressives put into reframing thoughts–the harder they tried to think positive–the more activation there was in the amygdala, regarded by neurobiologists as a person’s “fear center.” Says Tom Johnstone, Ph.D. the lead study author at the University of Wisconsin:

Healthy individuals putting more cognitive effort into [reframing the content] get a bigger payoff in terms of decreasing activity in the brain’s emotional response centers. In the depressed individuals, you find the exact opposite.

This was certainly the case with me. When I was suicidal, very severely depressed, the methods that I use now–that are extremely helpful in pulling me out of destructive thinking–only backfired at that time, because the more I failed at redirecting my thoughts, the more I hated myself.

Which leaves me with absolutely no conclusion for you guys. Sorry. You’re damned if you ruminate on negative thoughts, and you’re damned if you tell yourself lies.

Maybe just try to be quiet? Good luck with that.

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posted July 14, 2009 at 12:45 pm

It’s true, studies can certainly be risky business. Though, it makes sense that if your brain is telling you one thing– “you suck”, for example–and some cheerful SOB is telling you with a smile and a pat on the hand that God won’t give you more than you can handle (my response to that is that God gives me more than I can handle on a regular basis, thankyouverymuch, maybe God hasn’t given YOU more than YOU can handle but please don’t try to impose your reality on my struggle), the disconnect can drive one to near-violence. It only makes sense that if the SOB in the above scenario is yourself, there would be a bit of mood squashing inner-conflict.
At our house we try to treat severe depression with the right meds (of course) and lots of TLC. When it’s not ‘pressed-into-the-floor-everything-is-ruined-forever’ depression, distractions can work. We like good food, online comedy (you can watch what you need when you need it), good company-only the people who ‘get-it’ are allowed, anyone who is judgmental or wants to ‘fix’ us is banished until moods have improved, or books or movies with stories so great you can get lost in them (no “A Beautiful Mind”, nothing by Nicholas Sparks) When the mood’s not at its worst this stuff can be pretty effective.
But when the depression is too deep, the night is too dark, the winter too long, there is often nothing to DO but treat and wait, and for the ones who love someone with a mood disorder to continue to love and be patient.

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posted July 14, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Nora, you’ve hit the nail right on the head.

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posted July 14, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Ditto Nora. Thank you, Therese!

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Anne B.

posted July 14, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Well, that post explains a lot. In fact, I’ve noticed that I have a much harder time pulling myself out of a downward, self-destructive, spiral when I’m tired.
What does seem to help is prayer. I can use it as a distraction, especially if I remember to reel off a decade of Hail Mary’s when I start to beat up on myself. Or better yet, I can pray for others who are worse off than I am. It’s a positive action. It gets me off myself, and at the very least, reminds me that it could be worse and, at best, reminds me of all the good things in my life.

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Charley Forness

posted July 14, 2009 at 6:36 pm

I know I am treading thin ice with this, but I’ve been off meds for 15 years now and I can’t necessarily put my finger on what helped me turn it around. I want to say that it was persistently finding ways to feel gratitude and persistently reading life affirming books. When I say persistent, I mean, more than two minutes of saying I am a Lovable person when a bell rings. I think the study lacks the long term affect. Just like many of us who may have suffered emotional abuse, we didn’t get that way by just one person, one time telling us we sucked. It was repeated behavior over a prolonged period of time, that finally weighed us down. It takes repeated counter behavior (and sometimes meds) over a prolonged period of time to climb out of the hole you’re in.
That’s my two cents…take it for what it’s worth.
Namaste ~

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posted July 15, 2009 at 9:44 am

Thank God I haven’t been in the “black hole” for awhile, but this study sounds believable. If one is SO depressed that ALL of their life is affected, then echoing positive reinforcement just falls on deaf ears, or is discounted as irrelevant. I’m sure that if I were “down in the dumps,” constantly saying, “I’m OK, you’re OK” would do NOTHING to make me feel upbeat.
Thanks again, Therese, for a thought-provoking post. No wonder those of us with depression find it so difficult to get OUT of it.

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Dorraine Fisher

posted July 15, 2009 at 11:03 am

I’ve been looking for answers for eight years now, and I am unable to take any medications and I’m feeling better with time. But I think Charley’s right in the idea that it may take time to change our views of ourselves; more time than a year in therapy. We didn’t get this way overnight. I think it takes a little practice and persistence. But therapy and some self-help books have a way of making us believe that we should be able to “think” our way out of any negativity, and when we can’t do that, we perceive it as failure and we feel worse because of it. My best observation is that sometimes we need to just allow ourselves to feel horrible for a while as we quietly practice gratefulness and changing our perceptions of ourselves. Depression seems to be like any other disease in a sense that it has to run its course.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 11:03 am

i found help in insight meditation where i was able to view my thoughts from a distance and ratioaly decide which ones made me happy and which made me sad. Also, I found that my identity was tyed to these unhappy thought and to feel better I had to form an entire new identity which after a period of time I did just that. I am a new person, have lost weight without dieting,let my hair grow and let someone love me for me. I am engaged to be married soon at the age of 68 and my only regret is that I didnt start meditating sooner. check out my website: for free meditation instructions. God bless, Donna

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posted July 15, 2009 at 11:11 am

Positive self-talk isn’t just trying to convince yourself through repetition that you’re “a lovable person.” Other studies have shown that repeating catch phrases (“Every day I am getting better and better”) does zilch because, frankly, it’s insincere. It isn’t what you believe. What does help is noticing the good qualities about yourself (when you do a good deed, make a note of it–”hey, I’m a pretty nice person because only nice people do that,” or, “those folks really appreciated the effort I put into that”), reminding yourself every day of at least one thing you’re grateful for (it’s also a reminder that all of life is not poop), and giving yourself props when you overcome an obstacle, learn something new, master something difficult. Those are real things that are positive in your life and you can believe them and use them as building blocks for a new self-image. When I’m feeling down I always remind myself that the half empty glass is, in reality, also half full. How I see it is my choice.

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Your Name

posted July 15, 2009 at 11:41 am

There are good comments here. If when repeating an “affirmation” — or saying something positive to oneself, the depressed person, feels even worse because it conflicts greatly with what they believe of themselves, this is still a good thing. Here’s why: When the positive is said, and the false idea retaliates with a strong outburst of negativity, allow it to be there, any images associated with the retaliation, any self-talk or memories, experience it, feel it, eventually it will dissolve or be released. Then the truth of your being will shine forth.
Yes, at first (like in the study) a depressed person may feel worse as the “sludge” (the opposite of the positive statement) comes up to be released.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 11:54 am

I have had chronic depression for over 22 years with major depressive episodes thrown in many times, which include attempted suicides. When I am stable with the help of medication, sun, exercise, etc. I can feel good and think positive thoughts. When meds., etc. are not working and I hit the bottom of the canyon, the only thoughts that repeat in my mind are “I am less than zero, a liability to my family and the world will be a better place without me.” I could not think that right now because I am stable. No self talk seems to help me from sliding down the canyon.
Once I accepted the fact that my brain has some faulty wiring at that moment, my best self-talk is “It is here now but things will get better. They have before.” I wish everyone could have this thought of, “I know how much my husband loves me and how hurt he would be if I died.” This has kept me away from suicide many times. With that, I wait it out, and seek help when negative thoughts totally overwhelm me.
When depression is chronic, acceptance may be the best road. That doesn’t mean I roll over and don’t fight. I see it as “OK, I am at the bottom of the canyon. I need to look for the cracks in the wall for a way out.” THINKING MY BEST GOOD THOUGHTS RIGHT NOW, “Treatments have come a long way since depression started for me. Maybe it won’t last forever.”
I really feel for those who have no relief, but I hope this helps someone.

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Alison W.

posted July 15, 2009 at 12:34 pm

I wouldn’t have predicted the results, but I think they do make sense. In my experience, and in my observations of my family members, who, like me, easily get caught up in obsession with their moods, the best non-medication approach to my depression has been to avoid thinking about my mood at all. If I am busy doing, instead of thinking (at least, thinking about myself), if I can get caught up in that state of “flow,” I often come out of it to find that I just experienced hours of happiness – or at the worst, not of sadness.
Overthinking my mood never seems to help at all. I think that’s why counseling only works for me in times of real crisis, and not on a long-term basis. On a long-term basis – and this is just my experience, so I certainly wouldn’t automatically apply it to everyone – counseling keeps me stuck in melancholy, while “keeping busy” actually works a lot better. And then, once I have some positive experiences and accomplishments to brood about, the positive thinking and back-patting does start to help!

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Alison W.

posted July 15, 2009 at 12:36 pm

(But I should add that keeping busy isn’t my answer to everything — medication gives me the even foundation from which to keep busy.)

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posted July 15, 2009 at 1:47 pm

psh… the happiest thoughts make me sad – all you had to do was ask…
I get very sad when I think about babies or my nephews, my younger brother, and sometimes other people I care about
it might be happy times or things that I like, but not to the extreme on those

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posted July 15, 2009 at 2:05 pm

I have had to deal with cronic depression, for most of my life. One thing I know, without my meds, I am inconsolable, sad and suicidal. The last suicide attempt was 20 years ago. Thanks to a great bunch of Drs. at the hospital after my last attempt,which by the way was almost successful. While in the coma, the Drs. sat down and brainstormed, a combination of drugs, and now I am able to feel the pain of a loss, birth and whatever emotion is appropriate, without falling into the black well of cronic deppression. Vitamin D suplements, sunshine and exercise also help. I now take 3 pills a day and am in a loving happy relationship. Thank Goodness for good drugs!!

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posted July 15, 2009 at 3:10 pm


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posted July 16, 2009 at 9:35 pm

It feels good to be vindicated! I’ve been telling therapists for years that tasks like looking in mirrors and telling myself “good” words and “fake it till you make it” doesn’t work, just make me feel worse! Having grown up in a horrific abusive household and told at 29 that I should have been killed when the sperm donor had the chance (I broke off all relations right after), I have a very low self-esteem. Now at 50, I have found a way to at least quiet the roar. I have a meditation chant that calms and lets me sit in place, which allows new messages a chance to tickle some of the bad message out of the way. The four words are “Just now, let go.” It is 2 meditations I found here on Beyond Blue and on an idea, combined. Inhale on Just and Let, exhale on Now and Go. “Just now, let go. Just now, let go.” For this moment only, let go of the bad feelings and emotions. this allows the new ones to trickle in. Do it once a day, 1 minute the first day, increase once a week by 1 minute until you reach the amount of time you are comfortable with. As you learn to let go, it will become easier to do and in your therapy sessions, you will be able to incorporate the mediation in your work there and start learning your DBT or other skills. Blessed Be!

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posted July 17, 2009 at 8:33 am

Good luck with being quiet is right … and yet, as John McLaughlin would say, you have inextricably lurched into the truth.
When we are in the throes of depression/OCD/bipolar/GAD/etc., we have no PERSPECTIVE. This is why the study’s results don’t surprise me.
That means the way forward is to take a step back. And sometimes, if your brain chemistry is sufficiently out of whack and destroying your home and work life, that may mean (yes) hospitalization or at least a detailed outpatient treatment program.
My hospitalization many years ago helped me a lot. But I don’t think it was because they put me on the right drugs (because ultimately they didn’t) or even that they gave me the right diagnosis. Rather, it was just a week to basically do nothing and renew myself mentally, yet under medical supervision given my delicate state.
I remember reading John McCain’s book about his POW experiences during Vietnam while in the hospital. I don’t like his politics, but I will forever admire the man as a human being after that. And believe me, THAT gave me some perspective to go forward …

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posted July 17, 2009 at 9:20 pm

‘Fake it until you make it’ is lying to ourselves and that is exactly what we don’t need or want. But we are accused of it so much of the time. Those of us who fight our dark battles need truth, not platitudes. If we know the truth and can somehow get a handle on it then we can do something about it. Some things I’ve done I NEED to be ashamed of but then I take it too far. I do a similar meditaion as Taborri and take supplements and exercise. And a little self-compassion is usually called for.

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posted July 18, 2009 at 9:30 pm

What I learned from Emery Bear is that first you have to de- program your brain. Our brains are like computers and you can not load Windows XP on an earlier program. You first have to take off the old program. He told me to tell myself that the premise I am flawed is a lie. Do that for six months and then tell myself that I am good becoming more. I had really old programing that needed to be erased. He cautioned m,e that my ego would fight this and he was right. Sometimes I could not even remember what I was suppose to tell myself. When things calmed down, I knew I could move forward with the affirmation. It truly helped. That is probably something that would reveal a lot if they studied this.

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posted April 15, 2013 at 10:10 pm

My is nema blessing i want to thank this wonderful man who has brought light to my life.My God will continues to bless him for his good work for casting a good spell for me because he has help me.i must testify that this man is bless with his wonderful power as a spell caster and i must thank my friend who introduce me to this wonderful man called dr ogboni who make me find happiness in my life again.After 1 day when this wonderful man cast this spell for me my life change automatically my Divorce wife who has left me for another man for the pass 2 years came back to me for begging for forgiveness which i never could have say no to her. But now my family is very happy that we are together now his email address is

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