Do Not Ruminate on Negative Things



“Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will.” — Zig Ziglar

Don’t fall into the trap of rumination.

If you dwell on things that go wrong, it’s a downward spiral, and can lead to depression.

Instead, find a way to dwell on positive things.

According to Martin Seligman, in the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, people who mull over bad events are called ruminators.

A Ruminator Can Be an Optimist or a Pessimist

An optimist that ruminates avoids depression because their explanatory style does not make things permanent, personal and pervasive.

Pessimistic ruminators are at the most risk for depression because they replay and dwell on the bad things.

Rather than a ruminating pessimist, you can be an action-oriented pessimist.

An action-oriented pessimist does not talk to themselves much at all, and when they do, it’s about what they plan to do, not about how bad things are. So then, the key to defeating depression is changing either rumination or pessimism and changing both helps the most.

How the Pessimism-Rumination Chain Leads to Depression

When you ruminate and you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you spiral down.

Via Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life:

“Here’s how the pessimism-rumination chain leads to depression: First, there is some threat against which you believe you are helpless.  Second, you look for the threat’s cause, and, if you are a pessimist, the cause you arrive at is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Consequently, you expect to be helpless in the future and in many situations, a conscious expectation that is the last link in the chain, the one triggering depression.”

The moral of the story is, either be an action-oriented pessimist, or a ruminating optimist, or ideally an action-oriented optimist that periodically dwells on the bright side of life.

Photo by insertinanename.


  1. I think I’m an optimistic ruminator. Whenever something apparently bad happens to me (that’s life), I try to see the good things on it or a lesson to learn.

  2. Depression and anxiety can come from ruminating on the past and thinking that it’ll happen over and over again, is a pattern I’ve noticed for myself.

    The self-judgement that can come on ruminating can be paralyzing at times for myself as I wonder why I did or didn’t do something. This ties in a bit with being in “INTJ” type that turns inward various judgemental actions.

    I’m not sure of the source but I really do like the following explanation of time:

    The past has already happened, the future is unknown and unknowable, which leaves the present as a gift to use now in the present.

  3. Love this post. I really think you’ve addressed this topic in such a unique way. I appreciate these insights!

  4. How about result-oriented optimist? 🙂
    Any result requires action, but not every action leads to results, eh?

  5. J.D. you brought up a very good image for me. I don’t believe I know of an action-oriented pessimist! hehe 😉 but I like that it seems there is this invisible step before one turns optimistic! Thanks for sharing! I’m so glad you’re back! 😉 ~Jenn

  6. Hi JD

    Seems you’ve been reading books that are along a bit of a different line?
    If so, any particular reason?


  7. @ Lance

    Action-oriented is the way to go. We all have our moments. It’s about getting up again, each time we get knocked down.

    @ Oscar

    Turning problems into opportunities and lessons is a very healthy practice.

    @ Eduard

    Yes he is. I’m amazed by his stories and how he challenged his peers and changed the industry.

    @ JB King

    Great personal reflection.

    I like the proverb. It’s similar to the one from Kung Fu Panda:
    “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift, and that is why it’s called the present.”

  8. @ Positively Present

    Thank you. The book will rock your world.

    @ Alik

    Good distinction between activities and outcomes. Yes, focus on results, but enjoy the process.

    @ Jenn Z

    Thank you. I actually know some action-oriented pessimists and they’re pretty effective. They’re quick to call out or focus on the bad, but they’re also quick to take actoin and do something about it. It’s refreshing.

    @ Juliet

    It was a Tony Robbins recommendation from a long time ago, that I’m finally getting around to.

  9. A Thought on Schopenhauer: That Schopenhauer should be regarded as a pessimist strikes me as fantastic! Maybe he is somewhat pessimistic about Life (though not in a very convincing way) but sure as hell is incredibly optimistic about Death! Where in the world’s
    literature do you find anything more optimistic than the following: “If now the all-mother sends forth her children without protection to a thousand threatening dangers, this can be only
    because she knows that if they fall, they fall back into her womb, where they are safe; therefore their fall is a mere jest.” Some readers will claim: ”That is optimistic! But totally unrealistic. Schopenhauer is acting as if he believed that after death we still in some sense exist and are ’safe in the womb of Mother Nature.’ ” I myself would give a more radical interpretation. I think that the question is not whether we exist after death, but whether existence itself is all that different from nonexistence. Some irate reader will reply: “ Of course they are different! Existence is the opposite of nonexistence!” –I know they are the opposite! But so is minus zero the opposite of plus zero. Concerning happiness one may ask:
    Are you happy at the moment? –In some way, yes; in another way, no.-Can you be more explicit? –Yes, I have just heard the first really convincing argument for the immortality of the soul. Now I know for sure that I will survive my bodily death.-This makes me happy. On the other hand my stake is overdone. Now to the point:
    -The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears that this is true.-James B. Stallion;
    – The place where optimism most flourishes is the lunatic asylum. –Havelock Ellis ;
    -Many optimists in the world don’t own a hundred dollars, and because of their optimism never will. – Edgar W. Howe;
    -The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little. –Mark Twain;
    -Optimism (n.) looking for lodgings with a violin under one arm and a trombone under the other.;
    -Optimist (n.) a cheerful guy who is blissfully unaware of what is going to happen to him.
    -Pessimism (n.) when, having the choice of two evils, you choose both.;
    -Pessimist (n.) a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for the coffin.;
    -In the middle of a financial crises and recession, the optimist states that there is still plenty of shit left to eat, while the pessimist wonders if there will be enough to satisfy everyone.
    I am not a fan of rushing into conclusions like: “One of the most important books of the century”, since I never end up in the middle of a sale. But in the broad context defined I will allow myself the luxury of quoting a few more cool stuff :

    -Psychologist (n.) a man who, when a good-looking girl enters the room, looks at everyone else.;
    -Psychiatrist (n.) a person who owns a couch and charges you for lying on it. ;
    -Parliament (n.) where a man / woman gets up to speak, says nothing, nobody listens – and everyone disagrees. ;
    -Patience (n.) a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue –Ambrose Bierce. ;
    -Perfectionist (n.) a person, who, on getting to heaven, finds he doesn’t like God.;
    -Persuasion (n.) operating on a donkey at both ends, with a carrot and a stick.;
    -Pedestrian (n.) there are two types: the quick and the dead.;
    -Advice (n.) something we test on others to see if it really works.

  10. I read Seligman’s Learned Optimism On your recommendation several months ago. I discovered that I am indeed an optimmist. I tend to look at most things in my life in the “appropriate” way in terms of whether its personal, permanent, & pervasive. However, remarkably, I’ve discovered I ruminate in pessimistic ways! The book solidified my awareness of this pattern & I am currently making the changes necessary to ruminate more constructively. For example, while househunting in Redmond, I’ve stopped ruminating on the fact that my mortgage is likly to double, and focus instead on the fantastic career opportunities. Believe me, that victory was not an easy one! Thanks, JD.

  11. J.D. – I read your posts with great interest, as well as what you colleagues write in their posts and blogs. Although for the moment I try to perceive things as useful learning experiences, I feel and sense a misdirection of our thinking and intuition that tends towards “sweetened pills” and quick fixes that are supposed to give some immediate miraculous results. I completely share some of the late Russell Ackoff’s and Roger Martin’s recent ideas that the current business world is tired of having armies of analysts descend on their companies. “You can’t start with a 28-year old with a calculator to solve your problems.” Corporations have pushed technical analytical thinking so far that it’s unproductive” he says. The answer? Bring in folks whose job is to imagine the future , and who are experts in different trans -discipline intuitive thinking and from there switch to modern design thinking, as to redesign rigid existing current systems. New ideas must come from a radically new kind of thinking. The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce, called it abductive logic. It is a logical leap of the mind that you can’t prove from past data. Many empowered in current organizations will not feel comfortable with such an idea. Why not? The scientific method starts with a hypothesis. It’s often what happens in a shower or when an apple hits toy on the head. It’s what we call ‘intuitive thinking.’ Its purpose is to know without explicit reasoning. In a knowledge –intensive world, design thinking is critical to overcoming the biggest block: overcoming conventional analytic thinking and fear of intuitive thinking. The design thinker enables the organization to balance exploration, invention of business and administration of business, originality and mastery. For example let us make a clear distinction between managers and leaders from a new perspective and see what can suddenly show up?

    In business articles, the words manager, leader, executive, and administrator are often used as if they were more or less interchangeable. Yet people with business experience recognize the vast difference in talent implied between calling someone a “real leader” or “just a manager.” But what is it that determines such a distinction, and could it help identify critical competencies and clarify vital responsibilities? Based upon many years of observing management practice in a wide range of institutions, we believe there are some important and useful distinctions between the capabilities and talents needed by administrators, managers, executives and leaders in order to be successful.

    An administrator is one who directs others in the pursuit of ends by the use of means, both of which are determined by a third party.
    For example, those who supervise a group of clerks processing orders, bills, or payrolls, are generally administrators because a higher authority specifies what they are required to do and how they are required to do it. They are responsible for seeing that the job is done right, but not for doing the right job. They are the lowest level of management.
    A manager is one who directs others in the pursuit of ends by the use of means that he or she selects.
    Managers are higher in an organization’s hierarchy than administrators and often include them among their subordinates. Managers, of course, may also have subordinates who are not administrators. Managers who manage other managers are “executives.” Managers’ primary responsibility is to ensure that jobs are done right, but in a dynamic business environment they would be remiss in their duty if the didn’t call attention to emerging opportunities and discontinuities that could change whether their teams were doing the right job. Managers and executives lead the people who report to them and they need to possess and cultivate qualities and skills that foster a productive culture – collaboration, teamwork, ethical behavior, creativity, and continuous learning.
    A leader is one who induces and guides others in the voluntary pursuit of ends by the use of means that they, the followers, select or approve of if they are chosen by another.
    All four – administrators, managers, executives and leaders – may have authority which they can use to coerce others into doing what they want done. However, in the case of leaders who may also be managers, they use influence rather than authority to get others to do what they want them to if the followers do not do so willingly. Those who are directed by administrators or managers may not follow them voluntarily but out of necessity. The exercise of authority involves the ability to reward for compliance and punish for noncompliance to the authority’s will.
    Administrators are responsible for efficient operations. Managers are primarily responsible for effective tactics. Leaders are primarily responsible for competitive strategy. The problem managers have when they try to formulate new strategy is that they must compete with existing operations for new resources and attention. Unless they can convince their organization’s leaders to invest in their proposals for new initiatives they must make do with current resources. In contrast, organizational leaders have full authority to develop a strategic plan and to dispense the resources to implement it. Unlike plans prepared by or for administrators and managers, strategic plans are more concerned with transformations – new business models, new competitive arenas, changes in scale, alliances, mergers and new product innovation – than reformations. Transformations involve a change in an organization’s function or structure. Tactical and operational plans do not. They can reform an organization but not transform it.

    Leadership involves two functions: (1) the formulation of a vision that the organization is willing to pursue even if doing so requires short term sacrifices; and (2) a formulation of the way to pursue the vision that will be both rewarding and satisfying. A vision is a non-existing state of the organization that is strongly desired. It may or may not be attainable, but it must be approachable even if unattainable. Visions can change over time but they tend to have relatively long lives.

    Administrators and managers require identifiable skills to be effective. Leaders require a high level of talent – qualities such as imagination, persuasiveness, integrity, adaptability, and collaborativeness – as well as skills. It is for this reason that leadership cannot be taught; many of the critical talents are innate. However, it can be enhanced. So-called “executive development” courses are generally devoted to developing managers rather than to enhancing leadership. Leadership skills can be transmitted but talent cannot be.

  12. Thanks for this. One thing I’ve noticed about repetitive thinking is that it often happens for me when I’m resisting a situation that happened or exists right now. There’s a belief that “this should not be happening” in the background, and the rumination is like a resistance to what’s going on. When I let go of the belief that something shouldn’t be true — maybe something not going as planned in my business, for instance — the repetitive thinking tends to quiet down.

  13. I think it’s always a great idea not to ruminate, you’ll end up more and more optimistic the more you look on the bright side.

  14. Hi JD,

    I have noticed the same thing too. Some people do dwell on the bad things in their life to such an extent that is paralyzes them. That said, I do think that many people who do ruminate on the negative do not know any better. If people knew better, they would do better. I think what is more important is that people should become aware of the fact that anything in life is possible.

    In our world, the negative is always endorsed whether it is on the news or in a movie or in a song. Negativity is more respected than being positive in our world. I speak from experience. As an optimist, I am constantly made to feel that I am weird or not with it. While those who are cynics tend to be viewed as being intelligent.

    So I think one way to stop the rumination of the negative is for our world to start focusing on the positive that is out there.

    Hope all is awesome!

  15. @ Dr. Michael

    > whether existence itself is all that different from nonexistence
    Now that’s an interesting proposition.

    Nice quotes.

    I’m a fan of changing the game through effective thinking techniques. I’m really a fan of test-driven results and measuring against effectiveness.

    Information is easy to share, but knowledge, experience, and wisdom are tough. I think the key is remembering that learning goes through stages: intellectual, emotional. and physical … so just knowing isn’t the same as doing, isn’t the same as hindsight.

    I continue to be a fan of leadership skills because I think leading a life of action and lifting others up through skills for thinking, feeling, and doing radically changes the game (or at least it’s a fun ride.)

    @ Jimmy

    It sounds like the book was great for improving your self-awareness. It sounds like you’ve been able to use changing focus to break up rumination. That’s one way. I think the other key way is disputation (arguing against your automatic negative thoughts.)

    @ Chris

    You highlighted a very interesting pattern that I’ve hit myself. Sometimes I have to remind myself to look at “what is” vs. what things should be or shouldn’t be. Resistance is an interesting lens and it reminds me that what we resist, persists.

    @ Jannie

    Sounds like you found the sunny side of life. For me, I find the key is looking at problems as challengs and taking action. I have a bias for action that serves me well.

    @ Nadia

    I think you’re right. It’s a skill thing. I think people do the best they can with what they’ve got and if they don’t know a better technique, they’ll just use whatever they grew up with.

    I have a new lens on negativity. What I used to think was negative was potentially healthy argumentation in disguise. The way some people argue though ends up negative. It’s another area where skilled argumentation can make arguments a pleasurable exploration instead of a battle of the witts, egos, or personal attacks.

  16. @ Lisa — Good luck with your change. I also recommend the book, “Feeling Good” by Dr. Burns which is fool of useful insight.

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