Instead of trying to be happy ALL the time, try this instead…

Instead of trying to be happy ALL the time, try this instead…

via by Judith Muskowitz

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.

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

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