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Positively Unhealthy


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The false positive | The social imperative | Positivity is not happiness | Truth is happiness | See also


Can positive thinking be bad for you? Barbara Ehrenreich, author of 'Smile or Die' certainly thinks so. Americans, in particular, have such a strong belief in the power of positive thinking that they have positively worked their way into financial crises and worse.

So how do we get ourselves into this strange state? Here are some thoughts to consider.

The false positive

Positive thinking is not bad. What is bad, is when we falsely think positively. This is the state of the false positive, where we actually feel quite negative inside, but put on a positive face on the outside. We may appear happy, but we are not, and this is not good.

The social imperative

So why do we put on the mask of happiness when it's not our style? Mostly, it is because other people expect us to do so, and we mostly do what other people expect of us rather than what we really feel like doing.

It is a not-so-strange fact that we like to be around happy people more than we like to be around miserable people, and we guess that others are the same. So we not only try to be happy for others, we also collude on social rules that say you must be happy.

Polarized positivity

Barbara Ehrenreich's point is not that being positive is all that bad but that the extreme social pressure to be positive that inhabits Americans (and others) is indeed a bad thing in the way it causes dysfunctional behavior that harms society more than it helps it.

Social phenomena such as groupthink and risky shift are examples of such polarization, where we tend towards extremes, even as we inwardly know they are unhealthy. The fear of social rejection is such a powerful force, it pushes us to exaggerate what we say and do as we seek to sustain belonging and build esteem.

Positivity is not happiness

A fallacy in the whole positive-thinking argument (or at least a common perception of it) is that positive thinking and happiness are pretty much the same thing. They are not.

Positive thinking is a discipline. It is a way of dwelling on good things and avoiding bad things that will hopefully lead to happiness. Many people think in this way, and there is certainly evidence that it can be true. A problem occurs when we believe it must always be true.

Happiness is an emotion. It is a primitive and pleasant sensation that we tend to seek, but which is not necessary for our lives. Indeed, some would say that discontent is necessary for change and evolution, and that if we were all ecstatically and permanently happy we would just sit under a tree and merrily wither away. It is no surprise that there are more negative emotions than positive ones, as these are evolved for survival.

Whilst we can all be happy sometimes, few can be happy always and we mostly swing up and down about a natural average. Trying to be always happy is like taking drugs -- the net effect can easily be much greater unhappiness as we desperately grasp at that elusive state.

Truth is happiness

A useful argument that goes some way towards explaining the positivity-happiness dilemma is around alignment of our inner and outer selves.

If the inner, true self feels one thing and we put on an outer mask that projects happiness, we will feel a tension between these different states. Yet if we are true to our selves, then this tension goes away and we are likely to feel happier than when we are acting (but not really believing) positively. Hence, paradoxically, the unhappy person is happier being unhappy than they are when they are trying to be happy.


The bottom line? Relax! Don't try so hard to be happy. Just be yourself and you'll be surprised how happy you can be.

See also

True self, false self, Tension principle, Act Happy


Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Smile or Die. London: Granta Books


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