Why Thinking Positively Doesn’t (Always) Work

How to stay emotionally authentic — without becoming a grouch.

Expert Source: Oliver Burkeman, journalist, columnist for The Guardian, and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

A positive attitude makes you more pleasant to be around, encourages people to help you, reduces your stress, and generally makes life more livable.

But compulsory cheerfulness — the insistence that you keep a smile on your lips no matter what — is a drag, whether the urge to behave this way comes from others or from your own inner critic.

Giving into Pollyanna pressures can make you feel like a fake. You might wonder whether friends who always insist you cheer up actually care enough about how you really feel and who you really are. Maybe you’ve internalized the pressure to be upbeat and are hard on yourself when you fall short.

In any case, it makes sense to find a way to share your authentic feelings without alienating those around you or becoming flat-out negative.

Drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, journalist Oliver Burkeman explains how to strike a balance.

Barriers to Overcome

  • Cultural pressure. From business consultants to self-help gurus, contemporary culture is full of strident voices insisting that we be positive at all times and in all situations.
  • Emotional denial. “The push toward positivity can feel tyrannical when it implies that only upbeat feelings are acceptable,” says Burkeman. Any deviation from the happy norm may make you wonder if you’re stunted or clinically depressed.
  • Force of will. “It’s very hard to simply make ourselves, or others, feel a certain way,” says Burkeman. “Aiming at happiness rarely produces happiness. Ancient traditions of philosophy and current psychological research both show that trying too hard actually sabotages the effort.” 
  • Fear of attracting misfortune. The popular notion that we “create our reality” via our mental and emotional states is a powerful one, says Burkeman. But it can also cause us to feel terrified of hosting even a brief negative thought. Rushing to assure ourselves that “everything will work out wonderfully” can short-circuit healthy processes of reflection, discernment, and reality-checking.
  • Be-happy backlash. When we’re feeling down, hearing that we should cheer up, stop worrying, and “be happy” can be maddening. Sensing that another person wishes you’d swap out your authentic emotions just to make his or her life more pleasant can inflame still more negative feelings, including resentment and isolation.
  • Lack of emotional ownership. It takes energy to compassionately listen to somebody’s fears or worries without taking them on. Recognize that if you are verbally spewing negative thoughts to another person, you are asking something of them. If they seem resistant to hearing you out, it may be they are dealing with challenges of their own, or they just don’t realize that you need a sympathetic ear.

Strategies for Success

  • Ask for what you want. The best way to respond to someone determined to shift your thinking to the bright side, says Burkeman, is to be clear that you’re really just wanting to process your feelings in the moment. You might try saying, “I mostly need to vent a little right now” or “I’m still sorting though my feelings, but I’d be grateful if you could hear me out while I get some things off my chest.”
  • Find satisfaction in dissatisfaction. A positive outlook, even if it is genuine, isn’t necessarily good for you in all cases, according to Burkeman. “Research shows that a certain level of dissatisfaction with your life can be a real motivator for achievement,” he says. So even if downside thinking isn’t popular, it can still do you some good.
  • Consider the worst-case scenario. Rather than repeating hollow affirmations that everything will work out while you actually feel terrified, Burkeman suggests facing the possibility of a bad outcome head-on. “The ancient philosophical tradition called Stoicism, along with Buddhism and other traditions, suggests thinking about out how badly it could go, and realizing that in almost every case, it would still not be fatal,” he says. “It may actually be more empowering to realize that you could cope with a bad outcome — even a very bad outcome like a death or loss of a relationship — than to constantly tell yourself that everything will be great.”
  • Get realistic about worry. A more realistic way to maintain a positive attitude, explains Burkeman, is to realize that, while things don’t always go according to our hopes and projections, most of our worries don’t pan out either. “Things almost never turn out to be as bad as we anticipate they will be,” he says.
  • Know that feelings cut both ways. Burkeman points out an important psychological truth: You can’t enjoy genuine happiness and positive feelings unless you also have the capacity to feel sad. “If you say to yourself, ‘I will only feel the good things,’ you wind up cutting yourself off from feeling altogether. That means you can’t fully experience the good things, either.” And you may have trouble getting in touch with your compassion for other people going through challenges.
  • Try for equanimity. Seeking a balanced and harmonious relationship to our circumstances — rather than victory over them — is the best way to stay positive. “Equanimity implies being present with and accepting of all your feelings, and realizing that they all go together to make up a rich emotional life,” Burkeman says.
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Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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