A Psychologist Explains the Trouble With Positive Thinking


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In 1939, the phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On" was invented by the British government to boost morale before the Second World War. Seventy-one years later, two bookshop owners rediscovered an original "Keep Calm…" poster in an old box, hung it up in their store, and it attracted so much attention that they began producing and selling posters of their own. Other companies followed suit, and today, "keep calm" and other glass-half-full sentiments have become not only popular Pinterest fodder but also a requisite for human behavior. In the United States, a cultural obsession with positive thinking is reflected in everything from the success of self-help books to the widespread trend of "adult coloring." But according to psychologists, there is a healthy threshold for positivity, and as a culture, we have gone way, way passed it.

"How happy we are—or appear to be—is one of the ways that we define success in our culture, almost as if it were a commodity," explains research psychologist John Williams, Ph.D., co-founder of California Anxiety. "Just look at how we put on a smile for photographs, even if we're not having a good time." As Quartz reported earlier this year, happiness, genuine or not, has become mandatory everywhere from the grocery store aisle to the workplace. "Many companies spend huge sums of money trying to ensure employee happiness, and not out of altruism," Quartz says, referencing the "dark side of positivity," where feelings become products to exploit over organic human experiences.

Of course, it's natural to want happiness in life. "Happiness feels good to us," offers Matthew Hefferon, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and family therapist in Chicago. "It feels good in the same way that … delicious food, a cozy warm fire, or a hug from a loved one [feel good]." However, genuine positivity and the pressure to be positive all the time are two different things. And psychologists agree that in our society, that pressure is mounting.

"All this 'think positive' business makes it seem that a person's happiness is completely in their control," explains Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., an expert contributor for Pro Talk on Rehabs.com "It seems as if the underlying belief is, 'Just change your attitude, put a smile on your face and everything will be fine.'" But as O'Connor states—and other experts agree—perpetual happiness is not a reasonable expectation. "We live in a world where there is rampant racial, sexual, religious, and other forms of oppression. These structural realities wear people down in all sorts of ways," she says. "For many people, sustained happiness will be elusive."

So where did this obsession with positivity come from, how is it secretly affecting us, and how can we rectify it? Keep reading to learn more from psychologists about the trouble with positive thinking.

All this 'think positive' business makes it seem that a person's happiness is completely in their control.