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On the blog, Positive Psychology Review, I read the following:

Dwelling on disappointments mentally and physically trains your brain to attract more disappointment vibrations. When coping with disappointment, it’s significant to note that your thoughts multiple [sic]. So, if you are fixated on a disappointment, instead of harnessing the positive power of your brain to find answers, you’re actually “sentencing” your brain to being imprisoned thinking about disappointment. Of greater significance is the fact that your brain is also putting out “addictive” chemicals that keep your body craving disappointment. Instead, notice when you’re thinking about disappointment and interrupt this thought pattern by thinking of something else… Perhaps congratulating yourself!

Is there a scientific basis for this?

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Since this quote appears under the largely unrelated header, "TRAIN YOUR BRAIN - LAW OF ATTRACTION", which I've edited in, I feel I should note that your source is generally untrustworthy, even though it may be on to something in this particular case. Regarding the law of attraction, readers may wish to see Jim's other question, Does law of attraction have psychological basis? Jim, if you're done with that question, we may want to edit its content to be a little clearer and reopen it...but you could do that yourself if you're still interested. –  Nick Stauner Feb 11 at 18:40
In other word, are disappointments normal signal I should watch or should I just concentrate on good things in life so more good things will follow –  Jim Thio Feb 13 at 4:26
I'd definitely doubt anyone who tells you to ignore your disappointments entirely and concentrate solely on the upsides. That leads to positive illusions, which are bad for all sorts of reasons...not the least of which is likely having that many more disappointments to ignore. –  Nick Stauner Feb 13 at 4:43
Do positive illusions lead to positive outcomes? –  Jim Thio Feb 13 at 8:48
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1 Answer 1

I think some scientific insights on this can come from a couple of sources:

Cognitive therapy

This is a branch of psychological therapy that interprets the human experience as follows. There is an event, then the evaluation of that event, and then the emotion. Disappointment would be the end result, the emotion. Regular therapy might focus on avoiding the event, the trigger. In cognitive therapy one would try to change the evaluation of the event, and as a result, change the triggered emotion.

To put it simply by example, if you were once bitten by a dog, you evaluate seeing a dog as a threat, and therefore experience fear when you see one. By learning to evaluate dogs as friendly and nice, the fear goes away.

So, this seems to imply that there might be things you can concentrate on that make it more likely for negative emotions to go away. But you would have to look into the details of cognitive therapy to figure out how exactly this works.

Learned optimism

Diener and Seligman have done quite some research on learned optimism. This includes the question of whether it's possible to "teach" a pessimist to become an optimist. In one of their studies (Diener & Seligman, 2002), they have identified the 10% of happiest people in a group of 222 undergraduates, and compared them to the unhappiest students. Both experienced the same amount of negative emotions, but the happy people got over it much faster because they had different cognitive interpretations of the events.

There are also some studies, not sure by who, that have shown that applying simple techniques can turn you into an "optimist" [citation needed]. A few studies (e.g., Johnstone, van Reekum, Urry, Kalin, & Davidson, 2007; Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002; McRae et al., 2012; Hecht, 2013) were able to see brain activity changes and brain-density changes in the prefrontal cortex. In "optimists" the left side is more active. In "pessimists" the right side is more active. So this might support the brain and "chemicals" claims. But you'd have to Google the exact reference.

Broaden and build

Barbara Fredrickson has some interesting research (e.g., Fredrickson, B.L., 2001) on how negative emotional states limit your range of reactions to "choose" from in response to a situation. And how positive emotions increase this range. She calls it the broaden and build theory. The most limited range on this spectrum is the fight or flight reaction in times of great stress and danger.

She does describe some "spiral" effects, where the negative emotional states (e.g. disappointment) can lead to cumulatively more restricted mindsets.


Also, maybe this is worth mentioning. There is a lot of research supporting the claim that meditation increases emotional stability. Mindfulness meditation specifically has been associated with the same changes in the brain as described earlier, associated with optimists. The "technique" taught here is to observe all events and emotions as if looking at them in third-person perspective, letting emotions rise and fall as they come without clinging to them.

This would indicate that it's not the "concentrating on disappointment" that is the problem, but it is the "type" of concentrating.

I think on most of the above topics you should be able to find references quickly on Google. I don't have time to look up the actual papers...


Diener, E., Seligman M.E., (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1):81-4. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11894851

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broadenand-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/

Hecht, D. (2013). The neural basis of optimism and pessimism. Experimental Neurobiology, 22(3), 173–199. Retrieved from http://synapse.koreamed.org/search.php?where=aview&id=10.5607/en.2013.22.3.173&code=0142EN&vmode=FULL.

Johnstone, T., van Reekum, C. M., Urry, H. L., Kalin, N. H., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Failure to regulate: Counterproductive recruitment of top-down prefrontal-subcortical circuitry in major depression. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(33), 8877–8884. Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/27/33/8877.full.

McRae, K., Gross, J. J., Weber, J., Robertson, E. R., Sokol–Hessner, P., Ray, R. D., Gabrieli, J. D., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The development of emotion regulation: an fMRI study of cognitive reappraisal in children, adolescents and young adults. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(1), 11–22. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252634/.

Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. (2002). Rethinking feelings: An fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215–1229. Retrieved from http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/~perlman/0903-EmoPaper/CogRegEmoOschner.2002.pdf.

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I'm particularly suspicious of the causal interpretation presented in Diener & Seligman's study, given the quasi-experimental design you've described... However, I wouldn't be surprised if that's the authors' fault. Causal interpretations often get thrown around inappropriately in positive psychology, unfortunately. This may apply to some of the other causal claims in your answer, such as those regarding meditation and Fredrickson's work. –  Nick Stauner Feb 11 at 18:35
As for the brain activity differences in optimists / pessimists (not a valid dichotomy BTW; these are dimensional traits that may even be partially independent), IMO, you should Google the exact references. To meet you halfway, I've edited in some references and reworded your description to suit it. If you're happy with my changes, I can delete this comment, but please consider my points here for future reference. I can appreciate the time cost involved (I just paid some of it myself), but wouldn't feel obligated to edit and comment if you would instead note plans to follow up yourself. –  Nick Stauner Feb 11 at 19:14
Don't worry, i was just being lazy about it and throwing in some bones so anyone interested could google and dig up the details. I've only read a couple of the papers so far, and most of the material here comes from class-notes that might grossly simplify the actual findings. –  Wouter Feb 12 at 9:44
Also, studying is a big word. I've downloaded the lectures and the literature list of Tal Ben Shahar's Harvard course and am working my way through it on my own pace. It's a hobby project :) I might add in some more references as i go along, but these are the ones i could easily find... –  Wouter Feb 12 at 9:47
Actually, this make a little sense. If we're optimists, we tend to see more solutions. If we're stressed out, we tend to see only fight or flight. –  Jim Thio Feb 13 at 9:14
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