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Is Positive Thinking Positively Bad for You?

The positivity movement is vast, and for a seemingly good reason. We are born with a propensity for negative thoughts. The term “negativity bias” refers to the brain’s tendency to react more strongly to bad things—dangers, threats, mistakes, or problems—than to good things, such as enjoyment, opportunity, and excitement. How many companies have a department to […]

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The positivity movement is vast, and for a seemingly good reason. We are born with a propensity for negative thoughts. The term “negativity bias” refers to the brain’s tendency to react more strongly to bad things—dangers, threats, mistakes, or problems—than to good things, such as enjoyment, opportunity, and excitement. How many companies have a department to respond to positive feedback? While the negativity bias helps us survive by alerting us to possible danger, it makes it harder for us to enjoy life. This is why ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) swarm our minds daily. Damn ANTs.

Enter the power of positive thinking. “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” is quoted by many self-help gurus. Positivity experts would tell you that a positive frame of mind increases your motivation to succeed and get what you want. It will make you believe you will get what you want. It will also motivate you to achieve more than you ever expected.

Is that true? Has the positive thinking pendulum swung too far from our negativity-bias? The answer is “yes” if you ask Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David, author of “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life.” In an interview, Dr. David made the following comment;

“Emotional agility builds our capacity to engage our inner world in a way that is courageous, curious, and compassionate. Whereas positive thinking and avoidance have overemphasized the role of our thoughts, emotional agility is a skill set that builds on our ability to face our emotions, label them, understand them and then choose to move forward deliberately. It is the ability to recognize when you’re feeling stressed, be able to step out of your stress, and then decide how to act in a way that is congruent with your personal values and aligned with your goals.”

Dr. David believes that the cultural focus on being happy and positive thinking is actually making us less resilient. She is not alone.  Studies have shown that cultivating emotional granularity and diversity increases resiliency and improves health. In other words, using more emotion words (granularity) to describe our feelings and experiencing the full spectrum of emotions (diversity), not just the positive ones.

This is why I advocate for the authenticity of our thoughts and emotions over positivity – accuracy over improbability. To have dreams seasoned with reality. I am ambitious and driven to achieve my goals, believing the direction I am taking in my life is on the correct path. However, I have learned to recognize when it is time to take a left-hand or right-hand turn (and sometimes a U-turn) rather than keep driving positively straight ahead.

How do we do become more authentic in our thoughts and emotions? Stay tuned.

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