The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

“I have always had a rather dark personality, a mixture of melancholy, pessimism and irony,” says Eric Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Throughout his life, family and friends have implored him to cheer up. He was instructed to smile more and scowl less—and perhaps seek counseling. Friends asked, “Why can’t you just be in a better mood?”

“Everyone assumed there was something wrong with me,” Wilson says.

But what if happiness, cheerfulness and optimism are not your default state of existence? Should you work constantly to switch your natural emotional setting, as was suggested to Wilson? Or could melancholy be just as valuable as merriment? These are some of the questions he sought to answer when he wrote his best-selling book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.

He’s not the only one who’s frustrated with what many see as America’s relentless push toward positivity and the treatment of happiness as a commodity. Not only can the happiness industry make us feel bad about ourselves, as it did with Wilson, critics say, it can topple an economy or worse, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Unchecked positive thinking and “irrational optimism” led to the housing market crash in 2007, she contends.

Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, says that “positive thinking has become a sort of allergy to anything negative. We are constantly on guard against negative thoughts, so that any time we feel pessimistic or bad, we want to reassure ourselves and say everything will be fine. But each time we do that, we inadvertently enforce the notion that if things don’t turn out fine, it would be a total catastrophe.” Rather than bolstering our resilience, he says, positive thinking actually undermines it.

Wilson believes we miss opportunities for wisdom, creativity and growth when we use positive affirmations to stamp out feelings of discontent and sorrow as they naturally occur.

SUCCESS’s Positivity articles extol the virtues of optimism and glee while offering strategies to cultivate them, all in the name of personal, community and global well-being. But not to the point of tunnel vision—contributing to another housing bubble or making people feel they should force themselves to smile through sadness.

So what’s a wise approach for embracing the whole self while still moving toward goals with kindness, compassion and responsibility? Following are lessons from the positivity backlash:

1. Stop tallying.

Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side, thinks that the backlash may be triggered, in part, by the idea that there is a scientific ratio of positive to negative thoughts and interactions that leads to happiness. “When you go through your day tallying up positive experiences, it can get old very quickly. You start trying to manufacture happy thoughts to get your ratio on target, and that just doesn’t work.” (The research behind positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s well-known 3-to-1 positivity ratio—that you need three positive events to neutralize a negative one—has been shown to be faulty.) Instead, use your feelings, whether negative or positive, to inform your decisions and behavior in any given situation, Kashdan recommends.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want and a positive psychology pioneer, agrees. “Even though I do research on the science of happiness, I don’t seek to make everyone happy all the time and in every situation. This is definitely a myth about well-being science. Of course, if an individual pursues happiness too much, his or her efforts will likely backfire.” Studies have shown that although expressing gratitude (by writing in a gratitude journal, say) can help boost happiness, doing so every day can reverse the effect.

2. Pursue vitality rather than happiness.

“Think of the times you’ve felt most alive,” Wilson says. “You feel capacious, strange, energetic, ecstatic. Not happy, but joyful. To cultivate a life with as many of these charged moments as possible, you’ve got be open to life in all of its conflicts and weirdness. You can’t know joy without sorrow. Vitality is a moment of meaning, when you feel that your life has deep significance for yourself and others.”

Lyubomirsky believes that this might be a matter of semantics, however. The happiness that she and her positive psychology colleagues promote as a goal is not only about sunshine and cookies. Searching for meaning—whether in art, faith, family or philanthropy—is a central tenet of positive psychology.

3. Think positively and negatively.

Athletes swear by positive thinking: Visualize yourself dunking the winning basket, and you’re more likely to actually do it come game time. Plenty of studies bear that out with anecdotal evidence, in business and interpersonal relationships as well as in sports.

But negative forecasting has benefits, too, Burkeman says. By considering possible failures, you can better prepare for them. The research of Saras D. Sarasvathy, professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, shows that self-doubting, insecure entrepreneurs are just as motivated and ultimately just as successful as the confident, positive-thinking ones.

And Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, encourages people to fantasize about their goals—including the fame or fortune they might collect upon achieving them—and then consider all the problems they could encounter. “The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking,” she writes. “Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”

4. Embrace your dark side.

Cultivating awe, gratitude, forgiveness and optimism—all pillars of well-being, according to positive psychology—doesn’t mean you have to whitewash your personality. “Acknowledge strangeness, disappointment and loss, respectively,” Wilson says. “And life attuned to melancholy can also prove optimistic”—and even positive—“if optimism is not the expectation that everything will turn out all right, but rather the hope that if we strive to make our lives meaningful, we can enjoy moments of overwhelming significance.”

 

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Patty Onderko

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