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Is Positivity Dangerous for Us?

Want to be happier, healthier, richer, sexier, or more powerful? According to many of the headlines all around us, all you need to do is to think and act more positively.
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Want to be happier, healthier, richer, sexier, or more powerful? According to many of the headlines all around us, all you need to do is to think and act more positively. But if you've ever tried to put this into practice, you've probably found that not only is this much harder than it sounds, it can also make you unhappier, more stressed and lonelier.

These headlines don't mean any harm. After all they're based on a growing body of scientific evidence from the field of positive psychology that suggests positive emotions - like joy, hope, love, interest, pride, amusement, serenity, gratitude, inspiration and awe - help us to see more possibilities, think more quickly and creatively and connect better with others. And as positive emotions accrue over time they also appear to build our physical, psychological, intellectual and social resources helping us to bounce back from setbacks and making it more likely we'll reach our potential.

So why doesn't thinking and acting more positively work well for all of us, all of the time?

"A little bit of knowledge about positive psychology can be a dangerous thing," cautions Professor Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina and keynote speaker for the forthcoming Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. "Just because we know positive emotions expand our awareness and build our resources, that doesn't necessarily mean that we're particularly good at learning how to generate them in an authentic grounded way."

"There's even some work to show how many ways we get it wrong," she explains. "Like when we have positive fantasies that are really disconnected from reality as a way to boost our mood in the moment, over time thexcessively value happat actually predicts depression. And when people excessively value happiness, it can be associated with heightened feelings of loneliness, fewer positive emotions and more depression. So the pursuit of wellbeing and positive emotions is a delicate art."

How can we successfully pull this off?

"Finding the right balance for our emotions is particularly important," explains Fredrickson. "We know from so many lines of research in psychology that the proper balance isn't 1:1 because negative emotions affect us more strongly than positive emotions. So it takes a larger frequency of positive emotions to balance out more potent negative emotions."

"Descriptively, we know that people who are experiencing flourishing mental health have ratios of positive to negative emotions that are a little higher than other folks, for example 3:1, 4:1 or 5:1," she said. "I no longer advocate for a particular tipping point, but the way I think of it is that when it comes to our positivity ratios, the higher the better, but within balance."

What's the right balance for you?

Fredrickson's research suggests there's a certain low level at which positive emotions are functionally inert. This means that if people are experiencing more negative emotions than positive emotions, the positive emotions never have a chance to seed the kind of growth you might experience.

Her studies have also found that there's the possibility of having too much positivity. We can't really be connected and grounded to life without experiencing negative emotions at times. Emotions are supposed to fit our situations and if we're expressing only positive emotions we disconnect from the harder realities of day- to-day life and the difficulties and the suffering that we all face from time-to-time. People who flourish certainly experience negative emotions as well.

So what are the most effective ways to pursue a healthy balance of positivity?

Fredrickson's newest research with her colleagues suggests three approaches:

  • Proactively plan for positivity - We can't get genuine heartfelt positive emotions by just trying to think happy thoughts. Willpower and mental effort alone are not enough to make the difference, instead the most reliable and effective ways to alter our emotional states is to try and better select or modify our situations. For example, if you enjoy having dinner parties with friends, this can be a great way to set the stage for more heartfelt positivity. But hosting a dinner party can be a lot of work so as the experience unfolds you made need to modify the situation in small ways - like spending more time interacting with your guests rather than just being in the kitchen - and see how this impacts what you're feeling.

  • Accept positivity rises and falls - It's important to be realistic about your expectations of positivity. Positive emotions are fleeting. They're going to arise and they're going to dissipate and we need to accept that rather than try to cling or hang on to them. For example, rather than constantly evaluating how much fun you might be having at your dinner party, the key is to not over-analyze what and how intense you're feeling, but instead to gracefully accept that you're going to feel what you're going to feel. We need to recognize that positive emotions are fleeting, they come and go. It is very worthwhile to cultivate more frequent experiences of positive emotions but it's completely unrealistic for us to think that our positive emotions will last all afternoon or last all day.
  • Practice mindfulness and savouring - Mindfulness and savoring are related concepts, but they're not the same and the best combination in terms of having higher levels of positive emotions in daily life is being higher on both of these psychological habits. Mindfulness improves our present moment awareness that allows us to discover the subtle positive things that are happening all around us. Savoring helps us to subtly amplify our positive emotions and truly enjoy a moment for a little longer.
  • Personally I've also found her free two-minute tool to measure my positive and negative emotions a helpful way to track what my balance looks like on my best days. It also an makes it easy to see what's creating heartfelt positivity for me and how I can sprinkle more of this into my days, and what's triggering heart-straining negativity and how to better prepare, navigate or avoid these moments depending on the learning and growth opportunities they bring.

    What are you doing to proactively prioritize a balanced approached to positivity?

    For more ideas from Fredrickson and other leading global researchers in Positive Psychology check out the upcoming Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology from June 15-17.

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