Positive thinking and striving for happiness are common goals associated with self-improvement. It seems that they’re becoming more pervasive within company cultures, too, as employee happiness, customer happiness, and a focus on productivity pop up in more company culture documents and mission statements.
At first glance, it seems like a step forward for company leaders to be focusing on the emotional health of employees and customers. But there’s more to positive thinking than might appear on the surface.
Why is positivity good for us?
During performance reviews, criticism and focusing on problems can make it hard for employees to see possibilities for improvement. Negative thinking tends to narrow our focus and block out other options, so we can end up stuck in the negativity without finding a way to move forward.
Positive encouragement that focuses on goals, and finding opportunities for improvement, however, can open our minds to options and alternatives. Moderate levels of happiness and a positive mindset can help us solve problems by fostering creative thinking.
And the feelings of happiness can often continue past what initiated them, since feeling happy tends to increase our focus on other positive aspects of our lives. It also opens us up to taking more risks and helps us to feel less inhibitied.
However, the act of striving for happiness itself has actually been shown to make us more unhappy. It seems like the more we force positive emotions, the less we truly feel them.
Should we cut back on positive thinking?
While extremely positive people tend to be most successful in close personal relationships and volunteer work, it’s actually the moderately happy folk who tend to be more successful financially and educationally.
Forcing positive thinking constantly puts us on edge, because we can’t ever relax in case a negative thought pops into our heads. It ends up being a stressful, always-on-alert situation, rather than a happy, enjoyable one. It can also put us under extra pressure if we think other people expect us to be positive all the time—this can actually make us feel more negative emotions, more frequently.
We may be more likely to blame ourselves for not being happy enough when we’re expected to see results based on positive thinking, which can become a dangerous cycle. And for people who already have low self-esteem, the effects of so-called positive affirmations (e.g. “I am a lovable person!”) can actually be detrimental. People with low self-esteem tend to feel worse after saying or hearing these affirmations, because they disagree with them.
We need some amount of negative emotions like fear and anxiety to help us act appropriately in certain situations—for instance, alerting us to danger. Psychiatrist Mark Banschick says people often use positive thinking as a defense against anxiety when they should be listening to that negative emotion. Anxiety can point us to an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, and covering it up with positive thinking can be detrimental to us in the longterm. Even in business, this can be an issue. Company leaders who are so optimistic they ignore warning signs can lead their companies to disaster.
In some cases, negativity can actually be beneficial for our performance. Studies have found that people in bad moods can often make higher quality and more persuasive arguments than people in good moods, and that a bad mood can improve our memory and mental accuracy.
A tendency to think negatively can also be beneficial in terms of reducing suffering of negative events. For instance, imagining worst-case scenarios in advance can help us prepare for those events and better deal with them if they arise. Whereas trying to “correct” negative thoughts can actually make them worse.
But too much negative thinking is no good for us either. Negative emotions can suppress the immune system, increase stress levels, and increase our blood pressure.
Positivity and negativity both clearly have a place in our lives. The trick, as with so many things, is to find a healthy balance. While being optimistic can be good for us it’s important that we don’t lose our handle on what’s realistic and what’s not. Psychologist Christopher Peterson calls this realistic optimism.
Rather than focusing on positive thinking, realistic optimism suggests that we should hope for the best, while planning for the worst. Stay attuned to what could go wrong, and what struggles you’re having, rather than blocking them out or pretending they’re not so bad after all.
Another suggestion is to avoid positive affirmations. If you have low self-esteem to start with, repeating phrases like “People like me” and “I’m smart” can make you feel worse. And even for those with high self-esteem, positive affirmations only tend to improve mood very slightly, and only immediately after the affirmations are repeated—there’s no lasting effect.
Lastly, avoid pressuring friends, family, employees or colleagues into positive thinking. If a pessimist uses negative thinking as a coping strategy, removing that strategy by forcing them into positive thinking can hinder their performance. And, as I mentioned earlier, the expectation that other people want us to think positive all the time can increase the frequency and intensity of our negative emotions.
So let yourself—and others—experience and appreciate the downs that are part of life, as well as the ups.
Image credit: Mr. Marco