It’s cold outside, it’s COVID inside, I haven’t gotten my $600 stimulus check yet, and none of the responsible parties have appropriately atoned for wronging Britney Spears. Things suck right now, and I feel bad accordingly. I even feel bad for feeling bad.
A well-worn cultural and pop-psych trope contends that looking on the bright side can help vanquish a bad mood. There are countless self-help books, newspaper articles, and high school guidance counselors out in the world, arguing (with a big smile) that you just have to "think positively" in order to be happier (and, cough, cough, more productive). But, I mean, easier said than done, right?
If you’re struggling—and the idea of just grinning and bearing it is enough to bring on an involuntary eye twitch—don’t worry: Experts say a so-called “positive mindset” is way overrated. “In North American culture, you’re supposed to smile and look on the bright side,” Barbara S. Held, professor of psychology and social studies emerita at Bowdoin College, said. “The harsher life gets, the more you’re supposed to have the British ‘stiff upper lip.’ That, plus all the feel-good stuff that came along in the 60s and 70s added to the cultural mandate to suck it up—but it’s a double whammy. You have to suck it up, and you have to act happy while you’re doing it. That’s what I call ‘the tyranny of the positive attitude.’”
Held’s research in the field of positivity has led her to become a vocal critic of that “tyranny.” She thinks pretending to feel good in order to stop feeling bad isn’t the one-stop remedy we’re led to believe. “Thinking positive doesn't bring good things to you automatically, just like worrying doesn't bring bad things to you automatically. That's nonsense,” she said.
If you chafe at the idea that happiness is just an attitude adjustment away, there’s value in exploring why—and finding more effective ways to cope instead.
Let your personality guide your mindset.
Some people genuinely benefit from positive thinking—it’s just that if grinning and bearing it means clenching so hard you crack a molar, that strategy clearly doesn’t work for you. Held said people who benefit most from focusing on the positive tend to be low in trait anxiety, defined in psychology as the tendency to experience “fears, worries, and anxiety across many situations,” regardless of actual danger. “Strategic optimism”—a social psychology term meaning a focus on the best outcome of a stressful situation—is a more viable strategy for coping with stress or hardship for people with low trait anxiety. For people who trend more anxious, Held said thinking of the worst outcomes and making a plan to deal with them, known as “defensive pessimism,” usually makes for an effective coping strategy.
Held said part of the reason she believes in the efficacy of defensive pessimism is because she uses the coping strategy herself. “For some people, so-called ‘negative thinking’ helps them cope better. I'm one of those people,” Held said. “If I'm facing something that's upsetting me, thinking about what can go wrong in advance and how I'll cope if those things happen helps me calm down and reduces my anxiety, and I function better.”
Not all anxious people will gel with defensive pessimism, nor will strategic optimism work for all non-anxious folks. Instead, Held recommended keeping track of how you’re feeling when you employ different coping strategies to get a firmer grasp on what works for you. “Keep tabs, make a chart where you note: What are you doing when you feel better, and what are you doing when you feel worse? You can usually find a pattern,” Held said. “It’s going to be very idiosyncratic, because we’re all different.”
Don’t use positivity to dismiss your real, “heavy” feelings.
Therapist Uche Ukuku said she’s quick to steer the people she works with away from mandatory positivity. Instead, she encourages them to sit with their feelings—even the so-called negative ones. “I explain to everybody I work with that I don't believe there are good or bad feelings,” Ukuku said. “I believe feelings just are, and that we have heavy feelings and we have light feelings—the heavy ones are the ones we don't like, and the light ones or the ones we do.”
Ukuku said the urge to deflect heavy, troubling emotions with a veneer of positivity can lead us to miss out on growth. “If we're always just trying to be positive or happy, we're really disregarding some experiences that may be forming us into something different,” she said. Instead, she recommends leveling with yourself about how you feel, and then seeing what you can do to alleviate those feelings—and, crucially, doing so without judging yourself for how you feel in the first place.
“No one forces themselves to have anxiety, no one created depression for themselves,” Ukuku said. “But where we get to have a choice is in that there are some things that we can do that can increase depression, and there are some things we can do that decrease depression. That might look like saying, ‘Yeah, I'm depressed today, but I also know that if I don't walk outside, I'm going to be even more depressed.’ I can acknowledge that I'm depressed, and I can also go outside. I don't have to be one or the other. I can be both.”
Is taking a walk, or doing another simple pick-me-up activity, going to magically lift a foul mood? Probably not. But will it make you feel better—and more in control—in the moment? Definitely.
Instead of focusing on positive thinking, prioritize positive action.
Positive thinking can actually stop us from achieving our goals (even goals like, “Jesus Christ, when the pandemic is over I am never turning down an opportunity to party again”). Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking, said her research has shown that positive thinking can actually be an impediment to achievement.
Oettingen conducted experiments where subjects were induced to have positive, negative, or neutral thoughts about the fulfillment of a wish, such as getting a good grade on a test, losing weight, or even asking out a crush. She found that the group of people who were made to think positively were significantly less likely to have achieved those goals down the line—months or even years later.
“People induced to have positive thoughts [in experimental settings] actually felt already accomplished—they had already arrived, mentally and experientially, at their wish fulfilled,” Oettingen said. “So, they relaxed, meaning that their energy went down, but wishes need energy. If daydreams and fantasies sap that energy, then we won’t get to them.”
Instead of dwelling solely on a brighter future, Oettingen said it’s critical to introduce reality checks whenever possible. This means evaluating the gulf between the positive future you imagine and the obstacles you’re currently facing in the present, which is a process called “mental contrasting.” From there, you can formulate a realistic plan for overcoming those obstacles and take action accordingly.
Oettingen built a strategy for goal achievement based around the principle of mental contrasting called WOOP, short for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. “It’s a great strategy to clean up your life and to get going on these wishes that are feasible and attractive, and to let go from those wishes that, at the end, might not be so attractive or are simply not feasible,” she said. The idea is to better identify your goals, and then set yourself on track to reach them with as little straining (e.g, the kind you’d do when forcing yourself to see the silver lining) as possible. “These four steps are designed to automate this behavior,” she said. “Meaning, you’ll create unconscious cognitive motivational processes related to constructively responding to negative feedback.”
Basically: If you want to become an amazing cook, don’t just imagine yourself knocking Ted Allen’s socks off on Chopped—imagine yourself wowing Ted Allen, then think of all the things standing in the way of wowing Ted Allen, and make a plan for how to conquer the ice cream maker when you hit the dessert round.
Say something direct to the people telling you to put on a happy face.
Your mind is free from the shackles of directionless positivity, and you’re coping with the bad times in the way that works best for you—hell yeah! The only problem? People you love, people with good intentions, still keep urging you to pep up. Annoying, yes, but luckily there’s an easy solution: telling them to cut it out.
“The more that we incorporate open communication with people in our lives, these things will start to subside,” Ukuku said. “We are not always upfront within American culture, so a lot of times we can beat around the bush, or just shut down. But if it's somebody that you actually care about, like a friend or a family member, it's worth letting people know, ‘Mmm, that's not really helpful. I just wanted you to acknowledge that I was sad today.’”
If you’re someone who finds yourself preaching positive as go-to advice, Ukuku recommended asking friends whether they want “empathy or strategy” when venting—and Held recommended we all go a little easier when it comes to strategy, especially in our personal relationships.
“We all have to think about not imposing our ways of coping on other people,” Held said. “You just can't assume that anything is going to be best for everyone. And if you pressure others into your way of coping, you may well be doing a lot more damage than you can even begin to imagine.” Release yourself from the burden of being the peppiest person in the COVID testing line and work on getting to know what actually helps you persevere through hard times. If it’s the thing that keeps you grounded, worry your heart out.
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