Opinion: What’s Wrong With Positivity?

The field of positive psychology has been lambasted — but let’s not discount the benefits of positive emotions.

The pressure to be positive pervades U.S. culture. No matter what the problem is, it seems it can be solved by looking on the bright side. Having a bad day? Simply keep smiling. Bank account overdrawn? Buy a lottery ticket and think positive thoughts. Cancer diagnosis? Slap a pink ribbon on your lapel and be cheerful. Don’t stew in negativity. It will drive away your friends and family, cause permanent frown lines, and make you sick. And you’ll die sooner.

Partner content, op-eds, and Undark editorials.

This push for an unrelenting focus on the positive is not a new phenomenon. In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale brought us “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and in the 1970s, Norman Cousins allegedly cured his painful chronic illness through a regimen of frequent doses of laughter. More recently, Rhonda Byrne popularized the “secret” that simply sending one’s deepest wishes for money, love, and health out to the universe would bring those desires to fruition. The decades-long obsession we have with the power of positivity continues today. Case in point: More than 1,000 students at Yale are currently enrolled in a class on happiness, making it the most popular class in the university’s 316-year history.

I worry that I’m contributing to this tyranny of positivity. I’m a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and an expert in positive emotion and health. I developed a program that aims to help people experience more positive emotion on a daily basis that we hypothesize will help them cope better with health-related and other types of stress. My research falls into the realm of “positive psychology,” an area that has been roundly criticized in books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Brightsided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” and Ruth Whippman’s “America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real.” Once, when I publicly argued that it is possible to experience positive emotion even in the midst of some of life’s most stressful times and that positivity can lead to better psychological and physical well-being, a bearded gentleman in the audience grumpily noted “That’s simply Panglossian!”

Ehrenreich, Whippman, and the bearded gentleman may have a point. Overemphasis on positive emotions denies the key role negative emotions play in our human experience. Negative emotions serve important functions in that they motivate us to take action or help us give up on goals that are no longer tenable. There is also evidence that experiencing a range of emotions, both positive and negative, has beneficial health consequences, including longer life.

Furthermore, the prescription to be positive in response to a significant life challenge like a diagnosis of cancer or caring for a spouse with dementia places the responsibility for fixing the problem squarely with the individual who had the misfortune to experience the stress. No matter that they aren’t responsible for creating these difficult circumstances or that they may have little power to change them — the positivity police descend and tell them to buck up, smile, and get over it.

Instead of empowering people to exercise what control they may have, we end up blaming them if they aren’t able to dig themselves out of a difficult situation, and this adds to their stress rather than lessening it. Perhaps most dangerous, by placing the onus on the individual to think positive thoughts to simply feel better about their situation, we neglect the importance of working to change the social or institutional causes of the stress which may perpetuate the systems of oppression, discrimination, or inequality that caused the epidemic of stress in the first place.

But we should not throw the positive emotion baby out with the positivity bathwater. There is, after all, mounting evidence that positive emotions are associated with a host of beneficial outcomes, including better health and longer life. In my research, our goal is to help people learn ways to experience more positive emotion on a daily basis even when life is stressful — not banishing negative experiences or emotions. Our research shows that even under serious stress, people can and do experience positive emotions alongside the negative, and these are associated with better adjustment in the face of life stress. My lab is not the only one doing this kind of work. Dr. Jeff Huffman and his colleagues at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital are finding that a program that teaches cardiac in-patients skills for increasing positive emotion shows promise for improving not only well-being, but also physical activity, a key health behavior for people recovering from acute coronary events.

Tuning in to even seemingly minor positive events like a beautiful sunset or a good cup of coffee leads to more positive emotion, even when life is challenging. Doing something nice for someone else is also related to increased happiness. Moreover, making space for positive emotions alongside the negative supports more effective coping and may provide us with the capacity to take on the bigger structural issues that cause stress.

Rather than insisting on constant positivity in the face of life’s big and small challenges, and expecting to “be happy,” the solution may instead be to find a few things you can do to bring more positive emotion into your daily life. Maybe that means taking a moment to savor a beautiful spring day or paying for the coffee of the stranger behind you in line. Will you win the lottery with the power of your mind? No. But you can increase the positive emotions you experience on a daily basis, lessening the negative impact of life stressors, both big and small. By making space for positive alongside negative, you’ll cope better with whatever stress life throws your way.

Judith T. Moskowitz is a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University and director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. She is a Public Voices Fellow.