Do you find yourself caught up with the idea of optimism so badly that you just can’t help feeling apologetic whenever you’re down and unable to switch on the positive thoughts? Psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor Susan David explains that this is exactly why forced positive thinking just doesn’t work the way we’d want it to, if at all.
While there are naturally optimistic individuals, there are those who end up intentionally blocking out the negative in attempts to replace it with the positive, depending on an escapist approach towards a supposedly natural response to unpleasant situations. With a great part of the media continuously telling you to “think positive” and “have a change of perspective” to make things better, an unhealthy obsession for optimism gradually develops.
In an interview with Washington Post, David explains the results of her research on forced positive thinking:
We end up blaming ourselves for not being positive enough.
David shared what her friend coined as “the tyranny of positivity”:
By sending out the message that our thoughts are responsible for creating our health, well-being, and reality, we are overvaluing the power of our thoughts, while making people feel culpable when something bad happens to them.
People who subscribe to forced positive thinking tend to believe that, if they could have been more hopeful, things would have ended differently, which is seldom the case.
We should understand that there will be instances where we do not have control over what happens. More than simply hoping for a positive outcome, we should focus on building our individual resilience for when we have no other choice but face unfortunate situations head-on.
David believes that “the strong cultural focus on happiness and thinking positively is actually making us less resilient”. Being familiar and comfortable with the full extent of our emotions, including and giving emphasis on the negative, will help us be stronger.
“Negative” feelings say more about who we are.
It’s hard to say that you know yourself entirely if you have never engaged with the full range of your emotions, particularly anger and sadness. When we are at our worst, we are driven to become more genuine in what we say and do, leaving little to no regard for filter and poise, which is why people usually consider it to be a dangerous state to be in, especially when interacting with others. Because of this notion, most of us choose to suppress these “negative” feelings and instead latch on to the idea of “staying positive”.
But “negative” emotions are what gives us a more accurate view of what we really are, especially at times of trial, frustration, and defeat. David calls “negative” emotions as the “beacons for our values”, explaining how we only get angry when the matters dealt with are things we really care about. “If we push these emotions away, we are choosing not to learn about ourselves. We are choosing to ignore our values and what is important to us,” she adds.
Pushing out negative thoughts only make them come back worse.
Research showed that generally pushing away thoughts and emotions would not expel them entirely, but rather only make them return, and worsen at that. David tells that this was the concept in psychology referred to as “leakage”, wherein “you try not to think about something [and] that thing comes back, but amplified.”
She adds that pushing away “negative” emotions to be happy is in fact senseless:
There is evidence that people who value happiness, people who are focused on being happy, and who set happiness as a goal for themselves actually become less happy over time. Happiness, we’ve found, is the byproduct of pursuing things that have intrinsic value to us. In other words, when you do something you love, that’s when you’ll feel happy. To set a goal around “happiness” is antithetical to finding it.
“Emotional agility” over positive thinking
What David suggests as an alternative to this flawed concept of forced positive thinking is to develop “emotional agility”, which would give us control over how we feel and what we will do with it. She thoroughly discussed this as a four-part model in her book “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life”, namely: