Home Psychology A Harvard Psychologist Explains Why Forcing Positive Thinking Won’t Make You Happy

A Harvard Psychologist Explains Why Forcing Positive Thinking Won’t Make You Happy


Rhonda Byrne has taught us that the key to happiness are positive thoughts. As we go through life, we learn that the harder you try to obtain something, the better your chances are of achieving it.

The more you study, the higher your grades and accomplishments. The harder you work the better results you will receive. From an early age, we have been raised to think that life is a numbers game.

The more you put into the equation, the more you get out of it. Can we really view happiness from the same perspective?

It only makes sense to think that the more effort you put into being happy, the happier you will be.

When you are feeling agitated and angry, thinking positive thoughts should help you feel more relaxed and peaceful, right?

Wrong. Try telling yourself repeatedly that you are happy, while relentlessly feeling anger piling up inside.

The harder you push, the worse it gets. We think that forcing ourselves to think and feel optimistically will relieve the anguish, but all that does is actually backfire.

Choosing to ignore negative feelings is the same as leaving garbage pile up and pretending it is not there. You may decide to disregard it for a while, but it is only a matter of time until it spills over and starts to smell.

The same thing happens to our emotions. When we sweep them under the rug, deliberately failing to acknowledge their very existence, they tend to explode eventually.

However, what we fail to realize is that only giving praise to our positive emotions and completely blocking our negative ones only makes us less relentless.

While choosing to ignore the negative emotions stirring up in our subconscious, they come back enlarged in other magnitudes.

According to Harvard medical School psychologist and professor Susan David’s book “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life,” emotions need to be handled, both negative and positive.She explains that instead of piling our baggage in the closet, we ought to give it more meaning, without attaching ourselves to it and allowing it to consume us.

This way, we can not only handle the issue at hand, but also learn from it. Anger and frustration can be two of our greatest teachers that disclose our true core values in life. David debates that this is the best way to build the best version of yourself.

In an interview she did for The Washington Post, David states, A lot of our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant, so people will just say things like, “just be positive and things will be fine.”

“The tyranny of positivity” was what a friend of mine called it. She recently died of cancer, and what she meant was if being in remission was just a matter of positive thinking, then all of her friends in her breast cancer support group would be alive today.

By sending out the message that our thoughts are responsible for creating our health, well-being, and reality, we are overvaluing the power of our thoughts, while making people feel culpable when something bad happens to them. They feel it is because they weren’t positive enough.

What is actually guaranteed in life is that it will not go well sometimes. You’re healthy, until you’re not healthy. You’re with the person you love, until you’re not with the person you love. You enjoy your job, until you don’t.

We will find ourselves in situations where we will feel anger, sadness and grief and so on. Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient.

We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard. I believe the strong cultural focus on happiness and thinking positively is actually making us less resilient.”

Forcing yourself to be happy is like fighting with a bull. You know you cannot win, but you do it anyway. You force yourself until you lose all control and let the bull win.

Giving too much priority to positive thinking only gives value to positive things, meaning we are not allowed to feel agony. Nonetheless, we are only human and being human means allowing yourself to feel angry, guilty, and even furious.

It is not wrong to feel this way. However, it is wrong to allow it to eat you up inside. Whenever we give emotions too much meaning or not at all, they grow, whether consciously or subconsciously.

According to Susan, “emotional agility builds our capacity to engage our inner world in a way that is courageous, curious and compassionate. 

“Whereas positive thinking and avoidance have overemphasized the role of our thoughts, emotional agility is a skill set that builds on our ability to face our emotions, label them, understand them and then choose to move forward deliberately.

It is the ability to recognize when you’re feeling stressed, be able to step out of your stress, and then decide how to act in a way that is congruent with your personal values and aligned with your goals.”

Therefore, allowing yourself to feel the negative emotional turmoil as well as the wonderful, flamboyant feelings prepares you for a healthier, more peaceful mindset.

Forcing ourselves to do something has always backfired, and this is no exception. If you are ferocious, give yourself space to feel it, acknowledge it, distance yourself from it in order to understand it and move on.

This will grant you the pass into a more meaningful life, less filled with agony and more filled with unflappable tranquility.

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