Positivity is having a moment.
From start-ups to sports teams, nonprofits to hospitals, the idea that we have to “think positively” — to believe that good outcomes will result, to imagine the best possible scenario, to have faith that our actions will move us closer to our goals — is becoming more than just a mantra. It’s becoming a way of life.
And to be fair, it’s not just aspirational bullsh*t.
Having an optimistic outlook on life, found one Harvard study, might actually help people live longer. According to a Johns Hopkins study, people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event than those with a more negative outlook.
The benefits extend to mental health, too. Scientists have found that positive ideation reduces anxiety, diminishes stress, and actually boosts memory. These benefits create a powerful feedback loop with our physical health, which might explain why positive emotions have also been correlated with a longer life span.
At the same time, some researchers argue that we are not just happy because we are successful, but that we are successful because we’re happy — that positive emotion actually engenders success, and not the other way around.
So being positive isn’t just about motivational posters and inspirational quotes. There’s a clear link between how optimistic we are and how effective we are, in our bodies, minds, careers, and relationships. Without a positive outlook, it seems like we’re playing without a full deck — and might actually be undermining ourselves at every turn.
The Cult of Positivity
But this new wave of positive thinking has also created a troubling belief: that we must be positive all the time in order to be successful. The flipside to this assumption is that we should never be negative, or else we’ll be failing as human beings.
This is the movement that says we need to grit our teeth and smile, commit to unshakable optimism, deny difficult facts, and suppress any thoughts or feelings that don’t conform to the expectations that the positive belief system demands.
I call this the cult of positivity. And I think it’s a real problem.
Because while positivity is clearly a powerful mindset, it’s just one of several adaptive feelings at our disposal. And while positivity does help us engage in the world in a productive way, it doesn’t need to do so at the expense of our full emotional experience as human beings.
In fact, this is one of the big ironies of the positivity movement: the negativity it creates by dictating which feelings are acceptable to have.
When we buy into the cult of positivity, we miss a whole range of experiences — experiences that are not only legitimate, but enormously useful.
To really capitalize on the power of positivity, we need to hold optimism alongside these other feelings. We need to recognize that we can be positive and concerned, optimistic and realistic, hopeful and cautious. We need to know that it’s okay to be troubled, worried, angry, or fearful. We need to remember that sometimes we should be.
We need to recognize that positivity alone is not the key to a long and meaningful life.
So what is the key?
The full range of feelings available to us — positive and negative — if we know how to use them the right way. Which starts with a simple practice.
Embrace all of your emotions — even the negative ones.
When we cherry pick positive emotions — or suppress the negative ones — we end up missing out on a number of highly useful “negative” feelings.
Take anger, for example.
While most of us would prefer to not to feel angry, this ancient feeling is actually one of the most powerful available to us. It’s the emotion that signals disagreement, concern, skepticism, and a desire to change — to change either ourselves or the world around us. It’s hard to imagine any significant movement in history that wasn’t driven in part by anger.
Because anger propels us into action. While sadness tends to be a more internal experience, and regret tends to be a more passive one, anger is uniquely designed to galvanize us into making a change.
Or, as Todd Kashdan put it in his recent interview with me on the upside to our dark sides, “The experience of anger motivates you to take a step forward, as opposed to a step back.” Which is why Todd views anger as “a courage enhancer” that, when used the right way, actually becomes a “superpower.”
This is why great entrepreneurs have such a strong hatred for the technology they disrupt. Why politicians get mad about policies they want to rewrite. Why writers need an intellectual enemy to respond to. Because they have to tap into their anger in order to change the status quo, search for innovative solutions, and develop new ideas.
If we subscribed to the cult of positivity, we’d miss out on that superpower.
Because baked into the positivity movement is a belief that emotions like anger are dangerous. At the very least, they’re counterproductive. At the most, they’re toxic. So the positivity movement tells us to push away those feelings, because “indulging” them would be a mistake.
Of course, anger can be counterproductive or toxic if it’s not used correctly. Blind anger, uninformed by self-awareness or empathy, can become debilitating, irrational, and sometimes even dangerous. It can simmer rather than motivate. It can get suppressed or repressed — especially in relationships and workplaces — leading to the destructive unconscious dynamics that we often see in bedrooms and conference rooms. So it’s not that anger is “good,” full stop. It’s that’s anger has the potential to empower us — if we harness it correctly.
That’s why Shaun T, world-renowned fitness coach and author of T Is for Transformation, actively cultivates his aggression.
In his recent interview with me, Shaun explained how he looks for “that thing that makes me want to be proactive … that thing that makes me — for lack of a better way of saying it — angry. So that I can actually be forceful and really go after it.”
This, for Shaun, is the key to overcoming significant life challenges, something he understands better than anyone.
“A great way to get through struggle,” he says, “is to actually invite the anger.” While most coaches encourage people to not get mad, Shaun tells people “to be mad. Understand what that emotion is. ‘Cuz if you actually connect to that emotion … you’re more apt to understand where it’s coming from … [and] utilize whatever I was feeling in that moment to actually better myself.” That’s how we can capitalize on anger and use it to our advantage, rather than suppressing or running from it.
What makes anger useful is the person experiencing it.
The emotion alone is just that — an emotion. A set of neurons, neurotransmitters and hormones creating mental-emotional sensations. It’s up to us to study those sensations, to understand their roots, to question their validity, and to decide if and how to put them into action. That’s how “negative” emotions become useful — not just by taking them seriously, but by processing and applying them correctly.
For example, an angry salesperson furious at his department head could call up every customer, badmouth his company, then quit in a blaze of glory. Or he could look at his anger, understand why it’s arising and whom it should be directed at, and try to change the policies, people, and culture he finds troubling. Same emotion, two very different applications.
But anger isn’t the only useful “negative” emotion. Take envy, for example.
While we usually try to hide our envy — and judge it pretty severely when we see it in other people — envy can actually be an incredibly powerful teacher.
Envy can teach us what we really want, by revealing what we wish we had. It can show us that achieving those goals is actually possible, and give us a person to model ourselves after. It can remind us that we’re susceptible to comparison, and it can make us more empathetic to other people’s struggles with envy. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it can show us where we need to improve and how we can do the work necessary to get there.
None of those insights would be possible without the uncomfortable feeling of wanting what someone else has. Envy isn’t a pretty emotion, but it is enormously valuable.
But if we were married to positive thinking, we’d miss those insights entirely. We would deny ourselves the experience of envy, and breeze past the opportunity to learn what it has to teach us. This is how the cult of positivity can really hold us back — by pushing away unpleasant emotions that contain the seeds of self-awareness, introspection, and growth.
We have to embrace all of our emotions, “good” and “bad.”
We don’t need to live for them. We don’t even need to necessarily act on them. In fact, we might acknowledge them just long enough to learn what we have to learn, and then choose to lead with positivity.
But we have to accept that these feelings are part of our experience.
When we don’t, we cut pieces of our emotional lives off from ourselves, which is a perfect recipe for depression — another negative experience the cult of positivity tries to avoid. As a result, we miss the opportunity to study those pieces and use them to grow. That’s why selecting for certain emotions never really works, and can actually hold us back in the long run.
Focus on action over positivity.
As we’ve seen, positivity can be a major advantage. It can open new doors, reveal unexpected solutions, and give you the necessary fuel to keep going.
But without taking action — without putting our optimism into motion — positivity will only get us so far. In extreme cases, positivity without action can become irrational optimism, willful delusion, or pollyannaish naiveté.
When we apply our positivity to a specific goal or task, however, we do more than just think that life will turn out the way we want. We actually honor that belief by actively pursuing life. Our positivity then infuses that goal or task, giving it new meaning, intention, and efficacy.
In other words, positivity only becomes truly powerful when it stops being a vague belief and starts becoming an operating assumption.
Of course, there are times we need to act when we aren’t feeling especially positive. In those moments, action becomes even more important.
Because even when we don’t feel optimistic, we can still take the next step in front of us. When we do, we often rediscover the positivity we seemed to have lost — not by willing ourselves to believe it, but by creating it through our actions.
This is a much more important form of positivity. It’s not just “positive thinking,” but positivity born from and reinforced by good old-fashioned hard work.
Nash, a listener of the show, wrote me about his own road to this discovery.
After being rejected for funding by almost 20 VC firms, he found himself adrift in his enterprise software start-up, unsure how to regain the positivity he had lost through the demoralizing fundraising process. In fact, Nash told me, he had suddenly reached a new emotion he had never experienced before: hopelessness.
But knowing that he had to raise a new round or shut down his company, he pressed on. He booked three more pitch meetings. He continued building his product. And when he sat across from those new investors, he focused on sharing his vision and answering their questions with everything he had, whether he was feeling “positive” in the moment or not.
These conversations, which reminded Nash why he had started his company in the first place, enlivened him. When he answered tough questions about his product, he began to see new possibilities for his app and new opportunities with his customers. That enthusiasm became part of Nash’s pitches, and the last of those VCs agreed to lead his first round.
During that period, Nash discovered something interesting about positivity. By committing to his goals even when he wasn’t feeling hopeful, he rediscovered his hope. By continuing to execute even when he wasn’t feeling optimistic, he recovered his optimism.
What he ended up with was much sturdier than the blind optimism he used to have, because this positivity was grounded in Nash’s talent, conviction, and work ethic. By continuing to act even when he felt hopeless, he learned that positivity wasn’t a vague feeling that came and went, but a connection to life that expanded in relation to how much he invested in it.
Action is the most reliable road back to positivity.
When we feel hopeless, pessimistic, or uninspired, it can be tempting to stop executing. In those moments, we tend to believe that once we recover that hope, optimism, or inspiration, we’ll be able to execute once again.
But in fact the exact opposite is true. We have to continue executing in order to keep our positivity alive. Because positivity only survives when it’s needed, and it only expands when it’s invested. Positivity might help motivate us to act, but acting will always cultivate positivity.
That active positivity is both more subtle and more meaningful than the mere idea of positivity.
Ideas and feelings come and go. We can hold onto them when they’re convenient and lose them when life gets tough. We can wake up one day feeling hopeful, and wake up the next feeling disillusioned. We can walk into a meeting believing we’ll get what we want, and walk out feeling like we’ll never succeed again. That’s because the mind is famously unreliable.
But we can always choose to continue working on the next concrete task. That task, if done faithfully and consciously, will always bring us a little closer to our optimism. Not just positive “thinking,” but positive “acting” — positive being — a conviction that goes much deeper than mantras, slogans, or generalized beliefs.
Know when it’s time to stop being positive.
As important as it is to keep our positivity alive, it’s also important to recognize when to stop being positive. Bold optimism might be endearing and inspirational, but it can also become irrational or delusional when we find ourselves in truly problematic situations. To be radically honest in those moments is just as much a superpower as being positive. That’s another reason we need access to all of our emotions, not just the “good” ones.
Natasha, a supply chain manager, recently learned this lesson herself.
After making positivity an informal policy in her department a couple years back, she suddenly found her logistics team dealing with a failed six sigma program and a chaotic SAP implementation. They were facing nine months of mind-numbing work, morale on her team had never been lower, and management was starting to doubt if she could actually deliver on her milestones.
How could things have gone so wrong, she wondered, if she had instilled a culture of positivity? Why was her team avoiding these hard jobs if they had embraced her philosophy of optimism?
After an honest look at her leadership style, Natasha realized that her positivity had tipped over into blind faith and willful delusion. Looking back, she saw the communication gaps, loose project management, and technical weaknesses that led to her predicament. She had known they were there, of course. But her relentless optimism had minimized their severity. She wanted to believe that things would turn out okay, but by believing it so fervently, she failed to acknowledge how they had gone wrong along the way.
So Natasha called an all-hands meeting. She began by openly acknowledging and owning all of the mistakes she had made over the past couple years. It was the most difficult conversation of her life, she told me, but also the most refreshing. The way she explained it, a collective sigh moved through the room, and a new honesty and willingness took root.
Free from the obligation to be relentlessly positive, her employees were finally able to be honest about their concerns. They could articulate their true needs and map out a more realistic roadmap for execution. By feeling free to be “negative” — that is, honest and transparent — they finally began to see what had gone wrong, what needed to be done, and how they could realistically get there. By the end of the meeting, her team was actually energized. In that moment, Natasha finally understood the downside to extreme positivity.
Over the next year, she developed a new culture. Rather than leading with positivity, Natasha leads with radical honesty. She and her team give themselves permission to acknowledge exactly how their department is doing — whether it’s easy or difficult, fun or painful, inspiring or hopeless — and then develop a plan that address the reality.
She no longer demands positivity. Instead, she asks for authenticity, and encourages her team to execute with the belief that they can and will get the work done.
Interestingly, Natasha has found that her team has never been more optimistic. But it’s an optimism that comes from clear and honest thinking, not from blind faith. Instead of assuming positivity from the outset, they create positivity by doing their work (and doing it well). Team morale has never been higher, and Natasha recently started teaching her approach to other departments at her company, where her grounded positivity is starting to catch on.
Not all realistic thinking is negative, and not all positive thinking is productive.
We need to remember this in order to harness the power of true positivity. Divorced from honesty and accuracy, positive thinking becomes delusional. Divorced from action and commitment, negative thinking becomes counterproductive and dysfunctional. We need active optimism and productive realism to work in concert to operate as our best selves.
When we choose to embrace all of our thoughts and feelings — even when they’re unpleasant or intimidating — we cultivate a more meaningful and stable relationship with our work, our lives, and ourselves.
Because at the end of the day, we’re not hungry for “positive thinking.” We’re hungry for authenticity, honesty, and connection. When we work for those experiences without worrying about whether we’re being “positive” or “negative,” we usually find that we net-out “positive.” That’s because authenticity, honesty, and connection always move us closer to the truth of our situation. And recognizing the truth — even if it’s uncomfortable — turns out to be the best kind of positivity around.
[Featured image by Court Prather]