“Success is a journey, not a destination.”
“You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind.”
“Positive thoughts, positive actions, positive results!”
The positivity proponents aren’t wrong. Scientific studies have shown that there are benefits to holding a “positive affect” and that replacing troubling thoughts with positive ones can reduce stress or anxiety. Plus, I suspect most of us prefer feeling good over feeling cynical or discouraged, so what’s not to love about the mindset of Positive Thinking?
Positive Thoughts, Positive Life?
Well. Not to be…ahem…negative, but turns out there are some downsides to unbridled positivity. Barbara Held, a researcher, and professor of psychology at Bowdoin College has identified a trend she’s termed the “tyranny of positive thinking.” Basically, the idea is that yes, positive thinking can help in specific circumstances and with certain people, but the regime of expecting everyone to feel positive, happy, and grateful all the time can actually be dangerous and counterproductive.
Why? Because if you’re in the middle of a major life crisis and you can’t muster up the will to smile, hearing about how you just need to think positively is likely to do more harm than good. Not only will you feel bad about your situation, but you’ll also feel bad about feeling bad. Likewise, if you’re not someone who’s prone to being cheerful and upbeat, all the talk about thinking positively can lead to feeling like you’re defective somehow.
And you know what happens when we feel ashamed or like we’re not good enough? We tend to isolate ourselves, or at the very least, we stop talking about our experiences. Such behaviors can lead to serious, even deadly, outcomes, and over time, those activities can become self-reinforcing. The worse we feel, the more we isolate; the more we isolate, the worse we feel.
What’s a person to do then? Be positive? But not too positive? Never speak of positivity to anyone, even your office mate who could find problems with a vending machine that dispenses free money? (Taxes, duh.)
I think that perhaps, instead of focusing solely on the mindset of positivity, we could shift our attention to what most of us are after anyway—feeling like we matter and that we’re valued.
Positive Connections, Powerful Life
Humans are largely and innately social creatures and inclusion has tangible health benefits. In contrast, rejection and especially ostracism can be physically painful and result in lasting psychological harm. Sure, we all want time to ourselves, but at the end of the day, very few of us can or will make it on our own.
By building meaningful relationships—those connections in which we seek to understand and be understood—we end up creating one of the most powerful forces on the planet: people who support and care for one another, regardless of the circumstances.
When we feel seen and valued and when we see and value others, we create resilient networks in which we can celebrate the good and endure our ways through the bad. People won’t be smiling because they’re afraid of what happens when they don’t; they’ll be smiling because they feel like they matter.
And people who feel like they matter? That they’re part of a relationship ecosystem that promotes consideration, care, and collaboration, whatever positive or negative events that might be happening? Those are the people who band together, figure out how to move forward, and successfully take on even the most daunting of challenges. Together.
How to Build Positive Connections
Alright, so if offering pearls of positive wisdom and turning that frown upside down are less effective than strong, supportive relationships, how do we build them?
- First, we listen to the feelings behind the words. Whether someone sounds angry, sad, or even happy, listen for what they may be saying underneath whatever they’re writing or verbalizing out loud.
- Second, we work to understand where the person or their feelings are coming from. We ask questions. We relate to their circumstances when possible without making the exchange about ourselves.
- Third, we offer validation and support. We acknowledge the reality of their situation. Then, sometimes we cheer them on, and sometimes we recognize their pain.
- Fourth, we give and receive. When possible, we offer to do something to help them, and when necessary, we graciously accept the assistance that others may provide to us.
- Fifth, we practice compassion. A little bit of empathy goes a long way, and we extend our capacity to care to those we know and those we don’t know.
So, the next time someone says they’re having a tough time, I challenge you to focus on the lovely opportunity that just presented itself: the chance to get to know someone better and to offer them the recognition we all crave. That type of interaction might not feel as majestic as the sweeping mountain vistas look, but I guarantee the moment will be far more memorable and build a lot more positivity over the long run.