The Psychological Advice That's Supposed To Make You Happy — But Might Be Making You Miserable

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The idea that we can think our way to happiness, or at least to feeling better, has become an article of faith in America.

As a positive psychology practitioner, I’m here to throw some cold water on that notion.

Life simply isn’t about being happy all of the time. Life also encompasses pain and darkness. Positivity is powerful but sometimes positivity isn’t what is needed. 

Being told to think positively in the face of suffering dismisses the real pain and struggle inherent in human life.

Such advice is misleading for everyone but is particularly damaging to children. It leads to unrealistic expectations, fosters shame, and sets up a lifelong pattern of fearing emotion.

To avoid the negative is to avoid reality. And there’s nothing positive about that.

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How to avoid self-defeating optimism

Forced positive thinking can not only undermine your goals, and it can even make you more miserable in the end.

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as self-defeating optimism. You spend your energy trying to be positive then end up not only feeling less positive than when you started but also feeling depleted.

Rather than trying to force positivity, it’s better to recognize that it’s normal at times to feel down, discouraged, disappointed, unmotivated, tired, or “off.”

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Recognize that emotions exist for us to use

In reality, there is no such thing as a positive or negative emotion. All emotions are adaptive, meaning they evolved to help us.

Feeling hurt or upset is a routine part of the experience of life. Even the act of appropriate complaining is a stress reliever.

Many of us were taught to fear strong emotions and were shamed for expressing them. Messages about angry women and pride coming before a fall led to our discomfort with these emotions and many more.

However, the simple act of allowing and witnessing painful emotions can be transformative. The discomfort can flow away without the need to numb or distract when you allow yourself to sit with your feelings.

In this way, you don’t miss the messages that these emotions bring or the chance to engage in meaningful problem-solving. You won’t need to eat or drink your way through it, either.

Here are a few examples of how your emotions inform you and, if you let them, guide your actions:

  • Anger lets you know there has been a boundary violation.
  • Sadness encourages you to step back and give yourself time to grieve something that has been lost.
  • Envy gives you an opportunity to look closer into unmet needs.
  • Dread is a form of anxiety that encourages you to look deeper into fears.

When you let these emotions be present you can process them and make conscious decisions about your best steps forward.

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Emotional expression is the path

Most emotions dissipate quickly when they are allowed to be felt and expressed. This includes expressing the emotion only to yourself.

It isn’t necessary to act on emotion or to communicate it to others. Even writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal can relieve stress and spur positive action.

When you allow your emotions to dissipate naturally in this way it is like a weight being lifted and there is often a resulting natural calmness and clarity.

The time to switch to a more positive thought or emotion is after you’ve fully felt and processed the less comfortable ones. Of course, it may be necessary to put aside some feelings for a later time and that’s OK.

Just don’t force yourself to “think positive” by pushing emotions away forever.

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Seeking emotional balance is better than chasing positivity 

Better advice than trying to maintain a constant positive attitude is to stay aware of your balance of positive vs. negative emotions.

As already discussed all emotions are positive in that they give us good information but some are more pleasant to experience and you want to be sure that you don’t miss out on these. No matter how hard life is there are always naturally positive moments and opportunities for laughter and love, even if small and fleeting.

To reveal the positive in any situation ask yourself this powerful question: What is going right?

Since what we focus on expands our awareness this simple question can give you new insight into all of your relationships and situations.

When we identify what’s right and seek to focus on that we naturally bring more of it to us. And these insights can provide renewed energy and motivation.

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Find an emotional balance that serves your needs

There’s no exact ratio that’s agreed upon in the research but seeking to balance your emotions is a proven winner. You may have lost your job but you can still enjoy the hug of a loved one, the snuggle of a pet, or the beauty of a flower.

This is the message Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl brought us: that we always retain the ability to choose our attitude no matter how difficult our circumstances are, not through forced positivity but through connection with the deeper purpose and meaning in life.

Giving some momentary focus to those good things builds your resilience to face the challenges of everything else. This authentic, rather than forced, positivity is also an essential part of generating hope for a better future.

Allowing all of your emotions to be present and felt will ultimately make it easier to tap into your actual natural positivity and reap all of its benefits.

If you find yourself persistently sad or unable to muster any positivity it’s time to reassess and consult with a mental health professional.

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Lisa Newman, MAPP is a positive psychology practitioner and certified intuitive eating counselor. You can find out more here