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The dangers of positive thinking

When you hear the phrase ‘don’t worry, be happy’ — how does it make you feel?

When I started planning for INTENT, I began the brainstorming process with a few keywords. I knew clearly this has to be a platform that promotes self-improvement in an active, mindful way, through simplifying everyday life and omitting unnecessary ‘mental chores’. And now that I reflect on the whole planning process, I noticed that no where have I included the word ‘positivity’.

I’m someone who has never thought of whether it’s a half full or half empty glass in front of me. Instead it simply goes like this:

It’s collecting dust. Why did someone leave it here?

I naturally have a very (sometimes overly) realist approach to a lot of things. It stemmed from my upbringing where I was taught to ‘solve’ emotions rather than ‘just let it do its thing’. As odd as it sounds, it’s worked for me and helped me cope with a lot of problems in life (especially with relationships). This is also something I really appreciate about the Danish culture — the practical approach in problem solving.

And the ‘be happy’ phrase is exactly what I’m never going to tell people.

Wellbeing is not about being happy all the time

A lot of people tend to mix up overall wellbeing and the emotion of joy. Surely no one wakes up in the morning with the aim to experience sadness, yet there’s something wrong if being happy is your preferred tactic in dealing with problems.

Social psychologist Carol Tavris talked about the negative side of imposing positive psychology as an overall strategy to tackle mental illness (you can read the amazing article here). In everyday context, pushing away our negative thoughts and emotions does not allow you to immerse into the true experience. Gradually with a 24/7 ‘be happy’ mindset, this can weaken your tolerance and magnify future experiences of negativity. Resilience to pain, fear and sadness is like a muscle — it can only be trained if you actually walk through the shitstorm.

In fact, it’s completely normal and healthy to feel bad sometimes. Equilibrium in both positive and negative emotions allows self reflection — limiting emotions and pushing away sadness is to limit your chance to learn something new out of a bad situation.

In a work environment, forced positivity can affect your stress levels — simply because faking a chirpy attitude takes effort, and it strips way your energy to actually tackle the problems you face (read more about it here).

Staying happy vs staying optimistic

Don’t get me wrong, I see the importance of staying optimistic with what comes in your way. However, my own take is that ‘staying optimistic’ does not mean ‘staying happy even when the situation is obviously shitty’. Being optimistic puts the focus on perceived direction of the event; instead, being happy puts the focus on imposing positivity to your emotions. And that to me is very risky.

Instead, try skeptical optimism — the art of being responsible with your emotions instead of restricting it. Instead of blindly reciting to yourself that ‘I’m happy and blessed’, you can cry about something but know perfectly well that you will eventually be over it . You can panic about a shitty crisis, learn a valuable life lesson, and proactively seek out ways to resolve the problem — all at the same time. And this to me is the true meaning of staying optimistic.

Simply put, the world can be sunshine and rainbows — but there’s so, so much more.

(This post is republished from INTENT.)


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INTENT is a Copenhagen based site sharing with you inspirations on mindfulness, self-growth & minimalist lifestyle.

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