“Cheer up, friend!” “Keep your chin up! “Look on the bright side of life!” “Be more POSITIVE!” These are the little bits of “wisdom” that the pessimists of the modern world have heaped upon them by friends, family, coworkers, etc. American culture has developed a hunger for overly positive thinking, seen prominently in the incessant sunshine of mainstream marketing and the “can-do” dogmas of motivational speakers. Though it may not seem like a bad thing initially, our cultural demand for constant positivity can have personally damaging effects. While too much negativity is obviously not a good thing, overt attempts to stay positive all the time can be even worse.
The Downside to Too Much Positivity
Psychology focused on positive thinking and self-reinforcement has been popular since the 1990s. In recent years, however, many psychologists find that much of the data that supports positive thinking doesn’t always add up. Many influential studies have shown that positive people are physically healthier, but it now seems much more likely that a positive person’s good health is probably due to a third factor. Furthermore, the pressure to “stay positive” in stressful situations can hinder a more naturally pessimistic person’s performance. In other words, everyone has different ways of coping with life’s demands. Some people are better prepared for stressful situations through worrying or anticipating negative outcomes. This type of negative thinking can be highly functional, while over-positivity can cause a person to negate responsibility altogether.
Forcing positivity on one’s self can be especially hazardous for someone in a weakened mental or emotional state. Recovering drug addicts, for example, can put themselves in great danger if they enter the realm of what addiction recovery professionals call “pink cloud syndrome”. When a recovering addict adopts an extremely positive outlook on their circumstances, they risk losing touch with reality and harbor an unrealistic view of sober life. This is dangerous because it can lead to overconfidence, complacency, and unrealistic expectations of treatment outcomes. All of this makes a recovering addict far more susceptible to emotional distress and relapse. To combat “pink cloud syndrome”, many addiction recovery programs encourage open acknowledgement and discussion of an addict’s struggles through group therapy, journal keeping, and other tactics that help addicts to embrace negative feelings while learning how to properly deal with them. For more info on pink cloud syndrome, visit this addiction recovery blog on the subject.
The Ability to Empathize
One of the biggest dangers of too much positive thinking is that it often minimizes the ability to feel empathy. Most of us have gone through something hard that was made harder by a well meaning friend telling us to be more positive about it. When someone adopts an attitude of overt positivity, the risk losing touch with reality and being present in the moment when bad things happen. Then, when bad things happen to others, they lose their ability to empathize. Understanding and feeling healthy negative feelings can help you be more aware of what others go through. When you process the emotions that come with shared negative experiences, you increase your chances of forming strong bonds with others and reaching out to people in emotional distress.
Embracing Bad News
Negativity is also positive when it allows a person to embrace bad news in a constructive way. The best way to explain this is to use the three little pigs analogy. The pig who built his house out of bricks was able to withstand the huffs and puffs of the wolf because he acknowledged the fact that something bad might happen and embraced the definite possibility. When a person has the ability to experience the emotions that accompany the possibility of disaster, they also have the ability to prepare adequately.
A Catalyst for Change
At its most constructive, negativity can become a catalyst for positive change. Many artists find that their best work comes from harnessing their negative energy. Most of us have at least a favorite song or two that probably originated in an artist going through a bad break up or losing a loved one. When we genuinely live with our negative feelings and let them push us toward action, we tap into the best that negativity offers us. Energy only means something if it is harnessed. Harnessing negative energy can be creative, cathartic, and ultimately positive if you let it. So the next time you feel the urge to tell a pessimist to cheer up, stop for a second and see what they do with their pessimism. You just might learn something that can change your life.
Hello! I am Camille, a wife, mother of four, Disney obsessed, certified teacher, and reality optimist. Motherhood comes with its ups and downs, and I hope while you’re here you’ll find something that makes your #momlife easier!