Overthrow the Tyranny of Positivity

By Susan David

Imagine you’ve just endured a really rough day. The boss warned you that layoffs are coming, and that your position is on the chopping block. A loved one received a frightening medical diagnosis. Your spouse informed you that they want a divorce.

Those feelings are welling up inside you—the despair, the fear, the anger. You know that your world is about to change, and not for the better. Looking for solace, you pour out these emotions to a friend. 

Their response? “Look on the bright side.” Or, “Think positive.” Or, “It could be worse.” 

How do you feel when you hear these words? For most of us, such well-meaning platitudes only deepen the pain, as they suggest that our suffering is a figment that can be vanquished by thinking happy thoughts.

We instinctively understand this, yet we keep repeating positive thinking clichés to ourselves and to others. When someone is dealing with an objectively difficult situation, why do we so often feel the impulse to insist that things are, in fact, not that bad? 

I call this the tyranny of positivity. The conventional view is that some emotions—like happiness—are good, while others—like the aforementioned despair, fear, and anger—are bad. 

While some emotions are certainly more pleasurable than others, it’s counterproductive to think of them as being either good or bad. Feelings just are, and we’re better off hearing them than wishing they weren’t there.

Encouraging someone to pretend to be happy or brave or optimistic when they’re feeling otherwise is unkind. It communicates that their experience is invalid, that their pain is something to hide from the world. And as a coping strategy, it’s ineffective. 

Research shows that pushing difficult emotions aside actually makes them stronger, a phenomenon known as the amplification effect. Think of those feelings as a smoke detector—they signal that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Insisting that you don’t actually hear the wailing alarm won’t make the fire go away. It will just amplify the danger.

I should make it clear that I’m not anti-happiness—I literally edited the book on the subject! It’s a great feeling, and I think those close to me would confirm that I’m a pretty happy person. 

But no one feels happy all the time, and nor should they. Tough emotions are integral to a life fully lived. The only way to avoid disappointment is to live a life without aspirations. The only way to avoid heartbreak is to live a life without love. 

Open yourself up to the difficult feelings. Learn what they have to teach you. And when a friend confesses their own struggles, encourage them to do the same.

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