A Psychologist Explains the Trouble With Positive Thinking
In 1939, the phrase "Keep calm and carry on" was invented by the British government to boost morale before the Second World War. Seventy-one years later, two bookshop owners rediscovered an original "Keep calm…" poster in an old box, hung it up in their store, and it attracted so much attention that they began producing and selling posters of their own. Other companies followed suit, and today, "keep calm" and other glass-half-full sentiments have become not only popular Pinterest fodder but also a requisite for human behaviour. In the United States, a cultural obsession with positive thinking is reflected in everything from the success of self-help books to the widespread trend of "adult colouring." But according to psychologists, there is a healthy threshold for positivity, and as a culture, we have gone way, way passed it.
"How happy we are—or appear to be—is one of the ways that we define success in our culture, almost as if it were a commodity," explains research psychologist John Williams, PhD, co-founder of California Anxiety. "Just look at how we put on a smile for photographs, even if we're not having a good time." As Quartz reported earlier this year, happiness, genuine or not, has become mandatory everywhere from the grocery store aisle to the workplace. "Many companies spend huge sums of money trying to ensure employee happiness, and not out of altruism," Quartz says, referencing the "dark side of positivity," where feelings become products to exploit over organic human experiences.
Of course, it's natural to want happiness in life. "Happiness feels good to us," offers Matthew Hefferon, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and family therapist in Chicago. "It feels good in the same way that … delicious food, a cosy, warm fire, or a hug from a loved one [feel good]." However, genuine positivity and the pressure to be positive all the time are two different things. And psychologists agree that in our society, that pressure is mounting.
"All this 'think positive' business makes it seem that a person's happiness is completely in their control," explains Peg O'Connor, PhD, an expert contributor for Pro Talk on Rehabs.com "It seems as if the underlying belief is, 'Just change your attitude, put a smile on your face and everything will be fine.'" But as O'Connor states—and other experts agree—perpetual happiness is not a reasonable expectation. "We live in a world where there is rampant racial, sexual, religious and other forms of oppression. These structural realities wear people down in all sorts of ways," she says. "For many people, sustained happiness will be elusive."
So where did this obsession with positivity come from, how is it secretly affecting us, and how can we rectify it? Keep reading to learn more from psychologists about the trouble with positive thinking.
All this 'think positive' business makes it seem that a person's happiness is completely in their control.
The Commodification of Positivity
To gain a healthier view of happiness, we must first understand how the American approach to positivity got so cockeyed. Unsurprisingly, Hefferon says we have capitalism to blame. "There has been a push socially and corporately toward insisting on happiness as the highest value, since it does, technically, increase productivity and health," he says. The research on this is cogent. "Happier workers, happier family members and happier people tend to be more productive, more loving, more peaceful and more law-abiding," Hefferon asserts. But because American culture thrives on monetary gain, corporations took this knowledge and sold it back to us in the form of self-help books, meditation classes and "keep calm" posters. In other words, over the past three decades or so, happiness has become a for-profit enterprise.
But big business isn't the only factor. According to Helen Odessky, PsyD, psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You, mental health research itself has also contributed to our cultural quest for positivity (though not on purpose). "As a field, psychology went from studying depression to studying happiness. Along with this progression, we began to feel pressure to be happy and to compare our happiness levels," she says. Complex but true, scientific research, commodification and societal pressures have all played a role in America's fetish for happiness.
The trouble with positive thinking goes deeper than too many cheer-promoting coffee catch-ups. "As a society, we have become increasingly intolerant of negative feelings," says psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, MD, of Positive Prescription. "We pathologize heartbreak, sadness, loss and have forgotten that it is natural and part of the human experience to feel bad sometimes." As licensed psychologist Nancy Sachar Sidhu, Ph.D., explains, this habit goes back hundreds of years. "The U.S. culture is heavily influenced by its Puritan history of holding in our feelings and not discussing them," she says.
"We … have forgotten that it is natural and part of the human experience to feel bad sometimes."
Add today's oppressively joyful television advertisements and sparkling social media posts, and our phobia of negativity only magnifies. "[It] has set up unrealistic expectations and a denial of the … complexity of our emotions," says Sidhu. At the first sign of sadness, our impulse is to suppress it, medicate it or feign positivity on social media to convince everyone else (and ourselves) that it's not happening. "I think this goes hand in hand with the quick fix world we now live in," says Boardman. "We demand immediate gratification in all domains, including mental health."
That's not to say we shouldn't strive for happiness. But psychologists encourage us to reconsider the idea that achieving a 100% blissed-out state—and staying that way—is a reasonable goal. "When one alters the 'pursuit of happiness' toward the 'insistence of happiness' things can change dramatically," says Hefferon. "Any person will inherently become emotionally worsened by chasing what cannot be caught."
Accepting What We Cannot Control
The reality of the human condition, melancholy as it may be, is that we're just not built to sustain the level of positivity promoted by our merchandise and mood boards. "It is not healthy to force one's self into trying to feel anything at all, and happiness is no exception," says Hefferon. "Attempting to be happy or force others to be happy constantly is to oppose our biological, neurological construction. This will no doubt inevitably cause further despair."
As Hefferon explains, our natural emotions are going to "drive right along" as they do; since feelings are technically a result of chemical and hormonal reactions in the body that aren't always rational, they cannot be inherently controlled. In addition, many psychologists agree that individuals' natural tendencies toward positivity or negativity fall along a spectrum. "Some people incline toward more happiness and optimism … while others tend more to pessimism and a darker view. Within these two categories, there are gradations," O'Connor explains. For people who are more pessimistic by nature, society's enormous pressure to "think positive" can feel like "trying to make a left-handed adult suddenly use only their right hand," she says. "Now blame them for not being able to write well while they blame themselves too." It simply isn't reasonable.
A Better Approach to Negative Emotions
While one cannot flip a switch on their emotions, no matter how many inspirational quotes they re-pin, what can be altered is "the intensity, meaning and duration of those feelings," says Hefferon. In other words, it's crucial to acknowledge your true emotions, and once you do, you can be strategic about how you react to them.
"One of the myths about emotionally healthy people is that they don't experience negative emotions like sadness or anger," says Boardman. "The key difference is that emotionally healthy people don't dwell on negative emotions or allow them to take over. On the contrary, they use them to their advantage—to provide perspective and help them cope with a given situation in order to move forward." For example, a person might choose to view getting laid off from their job as "an opportunity rather than a personal failure," Williams offers.
All of this is to say that negative emotions aren't as bad as we're led to believe—they serve a purpose that pure happiness cannot. "They remind us to ask questions, revisit motivation and embrace new goals," says Boardman. They help us make important life changes, walk away from bad influences and are overall important for survival. "Indeed, using negative emotions wisely can create hope and new possibilities," Boardman concludes.
So, next time you feel a twinge of sadness, stress or insecurity, don't buy yourself another "keep calm" journal and hope for the best. Instead, "walk around in the emotion and poke into its corners—think of it as emotional spelunking," says O'Connor. If you think you're feeling something serious, like clinical depression, O'Connor recommends using a source like MentalHelp.net to determine if treatment is needed. Even if American capitalism doesn't support you, professional psychologists (and the Byrdie team) definitely do.
What do you think about the pressure to "think positive?" Sound off in the comments below!