It’s true.  Being positive, no matter what, doesn’t make you happy.  In fact, this behavior has the opposite effect and decreases your happiness.  It’s so ineffective that some folks refer to this practice as “pathological positivism”.  Please let me explain.

Despite currently being referred to as Polly Positive on a regular basis, I was initially resistant to the positive psychology research surrounding happiness.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the research, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it, particularly the concept of positive thinking.  I was open to letting good and happy events be just that, but what about the events and details of life that weren’t all peaches and cream?  If I insisted I was happy when I was actually sad…. well, that felt absurd and delusional.  The platitudes we hand out as comfort i.e. “everything happens for a reason” and “it could be worse” left me feeling unseen, disregarded, and often flat out angry.

So, I skipped the skill altogether and called myself a realist.  I mean, what was the point?  Does that sound like something you have said, too?

Just FYI – skipping the skill to have a positive perspective in life did not work to increase life happiness either…

Maybe you’ve tried the opposite.  You heard about how positive people felt happy all the time and you decided to make positive statements only.  No matter what you might think or feel, you’d find something positive to say.  As you head into your most dreaded activity of the day you say things like “It’s a great day” or “I love my life” even though you grit your teeth to get the words out.  No matter what, you stick with statements that are actually false.  If challenged, you dismiss the challenger and insist on the positive.  You aren’t supposed to see it any other way and so you say the mantras over and over, hoping they will someday magically bring joy.

They won’t.  That’s not how it works.  Instead, the false positive statements will make you feel worse.  For lots of reasons.

You aren’t giving space for how you truly feel.

You are denying negative emotions in favor of only positive emotions and emotions will not be denied.  You take them all or you don’t get the good ones either.

You aren’t able to connect and receive empathy from others, because you insist you are fine.

And, you don’t have a realistic perspective of what is truly happening at the time.

Neither of these extreme approaches for positivity work and are NOT what having a positive outlook is all about.

What is then?

Having a positive outlook is the skill to be able to notice the positive more than the negative, but most definitely experiencing the negative.  This is learning that the negative isn’t all that’s there.  Often, when we see more of what is really present, the negative isn’t more important than the positives inside and around the negative.  A positive outlook that increases happiness is balanced, flexible and fluent in both positive and negative emotions.

May I tell you a story to illustrate?

Jenny recently got divorced and is understandably devastated.  She sometimes looks at her life and wonders how in the world she possibly got here because this isn’t what her life was supposed to look like.  She’s angry and very lonely. She’s furious that her husband doesn’t want to try again and truly believes he gave up on her and the marriage.

She’s the first person in her family to get divorced.  Many, many generations of traditional family models and now this.  It’s horrifying to Jenny.  She’s embarrassed and afraid others are judging her and thinking there is something wrong with her, or that the divorce is her fault.

Jenny would describe herself as a “people pleaser”.  She has always liked it when people thought she was skilled and competent and doing what was expected she would do.  Friends and family have told her she was strong and likable and Jenny does not want anyone to think that isn’t still true.  She’s known for being the life of every party, always up for a new adventure and the person “most likely to succeed”.

She’s miserable, but she doesn’t want anyone to think she can’t handle the situation and hey, having something positive to say is supposed to help.

Jenny’s friends know she’s hurting.  Anyone would be hurting with all that’s happening in her life.  They try to talk about it with her, but her response is always some variation of “I’m fine”, “Life is great’, “I’m actually loving my freedom”, or “this is all happening at just the right time – how lucky am I”.  Her family and friends wish she would open up about how she’s really doing.

Meanwhile, Jenny feels more miserable.  She doesn’t think anyone understands her and even that she has requirements in life that she simply can’t manage.  Maybe there is something wrong with me, she often muses.

Doesn’t work, right?  Let’s shift it to a true positive perspective.

All the facts of her divorce remain the same, but when asked how she is doing, Jenny responds with, “This is really hard and I’m so grateful for my friends and family”.  A co-worker asked her how she was keeping up with her work and she said, “I’m having to slow way down and pay more attention to things that used to come easily.  I’m so grateful to have this work I love.  That certainly helps keep me going.”  And when she moved into a new house, she cried as she redesigned her bedroom to accommodate one rather than two.  She made space for the sadness and continued on with the project.  As she did, she remembered how much she was drawn to the color red.  She followed that memory and used red pillows and accents around the room to highlight the color.  Later, Jenny noticed how much fun she was having while she really let her style shine in her space.  She breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude.

Ahhh.  Realistic.  Balanced.  Effective.

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