It’s okay to focus on the negative

Positivity is cool and all, but it’s not really my thing.

Bridget Falck
Mar 15, 2018 · 4 min read

I am not, never have been, and never will be a positive person. I am a worrier. I am quicker to point out why something might not work than why it might. You could call me a pessimist, though I might prefer to think of myself as a realist.

I am sarcastic. I am rarely excited.

While it’s true that worrying is not helpful and depression sucks, I believe that there are some aspects of being negative that have genuine merit. This can be summed up in the following aphorism, which is totally true because I just thought of it and it sounds good:

Positive people might be good at fixing things, but negative people are good at telling them what needs fixing.

It’s common knowledge that being positive is beneficial and being negative is bad for you. We are told to look on the bright side and turn frowns upside down. Bookstores and the internet are filled with extollations of positive thinking, and medium itself has almost 6000 hits for the “Positive Thinking” tag as of this writing. Here is a sample of what you might get when you google “positive thinking”:

  • The Mayo Clinic tells you how to reduce stress by eliminating negative self-talk: “Positive thinking helps with stress management and can even improve your health.”
  • SuccessConsciousness.com tells you that “the power of positive thinking is vital for success.”
  • TinyBuddha.com gives you 10 tips to overcome negative thoughts, starting with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “See the positive side, the potential, and make an effort.”
  • The Huffington Post blog has a post about the Science of Positive Thinking: “Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.”

I think it’s safe to agree, and research seems to back this up, that positive thinking can be beneficial to individuals, so let’s take it as a given. And, just for kicks, let’s ignore the empty ways this idea is often expressed — the meaningless circularity of, for example, the statement in the Huffington Post blog that “happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.” [Oh look, I found a way to be negative while admitting that being positive has benefits! I can do this all day, folks.]

Okay then, positive thinking is helpful. The ways in which it is helpful seem to have a lot to do with “success,” whatever that is, or with benefiting one’s health. Let’s acknowledge that these are both improvements, which leads us to: positive people may be good at fixing things.

But does that really mean we should eliminate negative thinking? Let’s look again at the HuffPost Science of Positive Thinking piece:

Great, so negative emotions can be useful! But only “if you’re trying to save life and limb,” and who cares about that anymore, anyway? [Hint: sarcasm]

Well, I would argue that there are more tigers in our modern society than we realize. Just read the news. But it just so happens that a lot of the modern tigers are out there in someone else’s path, easy to ignore.

Our modern society needs negative people to cut through the bullshit and say, “LOOK. A TIGER.”

While it may be beneficial, psychologically, to think that everything will eventually work out, sometimes, it most definitely will not work out. For the good of society, then, someone needs to point out when the ship is sinking. The broken building needs to be torn down before a new one can be built in its place. Negative people are good at figuring out what needs fixing. (Currently, this seems to be EVERYTHING. But maybe I am just very very negative.)

Now, it’s possible this is all bullshit. Perhaps this is merely a way for me to find some value in my endless stream of negativity, or to think that my anxiety and worrying serve some higher societal function. On the other hand, self-criticism is so natural to me that maybe I need only adopt a positive attitude: “Yes, these ideas are true and righteous and most definitely awesome!”

I feel better already!

So the next time a dancing, singing bear tries to tell you to “accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative,” feel free to point out how following this advice would prevent you from experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion and is, frankly, just not possible. It’s okay to be negative.

Bridget Falck

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Professional astrophysicist. Amateur philosopher. Human.