Tired of being told to be positive all the time?

07 September 2017 - mindful practices

You’ve probably been told to “just think positive” at one point or another. How did it make you feel? As well intentioned as it might be, did you ever feel that it wasn’t enough to help you move forward?

In Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Harvard psychologist Susan David examines the backlash effect of forced positivity. “I have concerns about the overarching societal messaging that we should focus on being happy and ‘think positive’,” she says. “I’m not anti-happiness or anti-positive psychology, but I’m concerned that the current discourse is paradoxically setting people up for greater levels of unhappiness.”

David is clear to point out that there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the positive—there are many benefits to it. The problems start when we force ourselves to “think positive” without first understanding our negative emotions. In this short video, David lists 3 reasons why suppressing negative emotions do more harm than good.

1. It reduces our ability to be present with reality.

When David’s father was diagnosed with cancer, many people told him and the family to “believe and be positive”.

“It impacted our ability to connect with each other in a real way,” says David, “because rather than being present and making space for reality, we were pinning our hopes on a future [that doesn’t yet exist]. Difficult experiences are part of life. It’s really important that we develop our capacity to deal with our thoughts and emotions in a way that isn’t [forced], in a way that embraces them and is able to learn from them.”

2. Negative emotions are important lessons.

“What I’m worried about this message of ‘be happy’ is that people then automatically assume that when they have a difficult thought or feeling, they should push it aside, that it’s some kind of weakness,” says David. “It hinders our ability to learn from our experience, [which] is stopping us from developing higher levels of wellbeing and resilience.”

3. Our emotions can be indicators of our values.

“When you put the positive spin all the time, you may be missing signals about your own values,” says David.

For example, if you get angry with someone, you can either 1) lash out; 2) suppress the anger and tell yourself to “think positive”; or 3) examine what your anger is telling you about your values.

As David concludes, “A better way to focus on happiness is not to be focused on the goal of happiness per se but rather what it is that we value—what is important to us intrinsically, and [what] everyday moves we can make towards that thing without the overarching expectation that we will somehow be happier. When we focus on what’s intrinsically important to us, happiness becomes an outstanding by-product of that focus.”

We know embracing difficult emotions isn’t the easiest thing to do. Fret not—we list 5 simple everyday ways to deal with negative emotions effectively.

- The Mindful Company Team