Why inspirational quotes can do more harm than good

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The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

It seems everyone is hating on celebrity chef Pete Evans lately for dishing out misinformed, and potentially harmful dietary advice. Vulnerable people can be easily fooled by his charm and confidence, and by the apparent simplicity of the messages he promotes. Well, it’s not fair that he cops all the flack. This doesn’t just happen in the food industry. It happens in all professional industries. It happens in mine. And you might even be doing it yourself.

So this is for all the people out there who post false, misleading, and potentially harmful mental health advice on social media. You might be trying to help, but nobody’s ever cured depression with a positive quote from Instagram.

Here we go:

one-small-positive-thought

No it can’t. Well, it might, but there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest that this is true. For it to be shown to be true, you’d have to conduct an experiment where a group of people experience a whole day, then rewind time to the moment they woke up, insert a positive thought into their heads, and have them experience their day again. Not only is it not true, it’s unable to be shown to be true. So it’s both an inaccurate, and an impossible statement.

Also, what’s a ‘small positive thought’? Is there a metric scale to evaluate the size of positive thoughts? I’m confused.

forgive-them

Don’t. Research shows that forgiveness doesn’t make people happy, it can actually turn some people into ‘doormats’, so called because they can be stepped all over.

If someone has wronged you, you have the right to be angry. You shouldn’t punch them in the face, but if you’re able to effectively process your emotions you won’t stay angry at them forever. You might not like them, but that’s simply your brain telling you to avoid future harm, thus ensuring your survival in the long term. If you’re the person who will forgive people no matter what they do, you make yourself vulnerable to being completely destroyed.

being-sad

Nope, no it’s not. Being sad and allowing yourself to express sadness when you have experienced a loss that you cared about is not a waste of time. It’s a chance for your brain to focus attention inwards to overcome the loss of a person you were close to, a dream you had hoped for or an opportunity that was taken away.

There’s a lot of research that shows that being sad can actually be good for you – it narrows your attention, concentration and focus in an effort to ensure you look after the things that are precious to you and don’t risk making yourself even sadder.

If we’re talking about wasting time, it’s actually happiness that can sometimes make us less productive. Happiness can distract you from the task at hand, and make you feel like it’s ok to take risks, and procrastinate, thinking that you’ll be able to get everything done later.

i-am-strong

Positive affirmations are great – if they are in fact ‘affirmations’. Our brain likes to hear information that is consistent with what we already know. So if we already feel good about ourselves, we’re going to believe these statements are true, and be able to assert them with confidence. But research shows that when people who have low self-esteem recite positive affirmations, they can actually feel worse. For them, the ‘affirmation’ is not an affirmation at all, it’s a lie. It highlights the discrepancy between the statement and what they really believe to be true about themselves. Affirmations are not affirmations unless they affirm what the person believes to be true.

Think twice before sharing that positive quote

The way we think about and understand our wellbeing and mental health is fundamentally important to helping people with mental health concerns or mental ill-health.

If you are not qualified to give out information about how people should think and feel, don’t. I don’t give out information on how to manage your finances, treat lower back pain or contend a civil matter in court – because I am not qualified to do so. And because I don’t know the extent of the harm I might do if somebody were to act on my advice.

Positive quotes sound harmless, but they only show your friends who may be experiencing mental health concerns how little you understand, and how un-self aware you are. It trivialises their experience, and probably makes them feel more alone, at a time when they need your support more than ever.

There’s a reason it takes at least six years of higher education to become a psychologist – we learn things. And perhaps more importantly, we also learn to know what we don’t know. So to all the life coaches, motivational speakers and wellness ‘experts’ out there, to all the positive thinking, happy people who really do think they’re helping others by giving advice on how they should feel – don’t prey on vulnerable people. Your ‘inspirational’ words could make them feel worse.

Interested in human emotions and thought processes? Check out Deakin University’s range of courses in psychology.

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

School of Psychology, Deakin University
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