Trying to think about the positive is better than trying not to think about the negative
When experiencing stress, many people try to keep the thoughts that are bothering them out of their mind. This form of mental control is called thought suppression. Unfortunately, thought suppression can backfire under certain circumstances and actually make unwanted thoughts more apparent and bothersome than they otherwise would have been. Thought suppression will often backfire, for example, if people have too much on their mind or get tired of trying to suppress the unwanted thoughts. Researchers at The University of Texas at San Antonio recently published a set of studies that investigated an alternative form of mental control, concentrating on desirable thoughts.
What was the research about?
Across three studies, undergraduate students completed tasks that involved unscrambling sentences. Each scrambled sentence could be made into either a positive or negative statement. Some participants used thought suppression, in that they were told to avoid forming negative statements. Other participants concentrated on desirable thoughts, in that they were told to only form positive statements.
In one of the studies, some of the participants also tried to remember a six-digit number so that they would have a lot on their mind during the unscrambling task. In another one of the studies, the participants unscrambled sentences a second time. While doing it the second time, they created both positive and negative statements, whichever came to mind first, to see whether the form of mental control that they used backfired.
As in previous research, thought suppression tended to backfire. Attempts to concentrate on desirable thoughts, however, did not tend to backfire. Clearly, concentrating on desirable thoughts is a better strategy. Trying to keep unwanted thoughts out of one's mind is less likely to work and may actually make things worse.
Why should it matter to me?
People who are stressed out by thoughts they cannot seem to get out of their mind may want to consider trying to concentrate on desirable thoughts.
Source: Wenzlaff, R. M., & Bates, D. E. (2000). The relative efficacy of concentration and suppression strategies of mental control. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1200-1212.