Don’t insist on being positive – allowing negative emotions has much to teach us

Eight years ago, when Whitney Goodman was a newly qualified therapist counselling cancer patients, it struck her that positive thinking was being “very heavily pushed”, both in her profession and the broader culture, as the way to deal with things. She wasn’t convinced that platitudes like “Look on the bright side!” and “Everything happens for a reason!” held the answers for anyone trying to navigate life’s messiness. Between herself, her friends and her patients, “All of us were thinking, ‘Being positive is the only way to live,’ but really it was making us feel disconnected and, ultimately, worse.”

This stayed with her and, in 2019, she started an Instagram account, @sitwithwhit, as a tonic to the saccharine inspirational quotes dominating social media feeds. Her posts included: “Sometimes things are hard because they’re just hard and not because you’re incompetent…” and “It’s OK to complain about something you’re grateful for.” It took off: the “radically honest” Miami-based psychotherapist now has more than 500,000 followers.

Goodman’s new book, Toxic Positivity, expands on this thinking, critiquing a culture – particularly prevalent in the US and the west more broadly – that has programmed us to believe that optimism is always best. She traces its roots in the US to 19th-century religion, but it has been especially ascendant since the 1970s, when scientists identified happiness as the ultimate life goal and started rigorously researching how to achieve it. More recently, the wellness movement – religion for an agnostic generation – has seen fitness instructors and yogis preach about gratitude in between burpees and downward dogs. We all practise it in some way. When comforting a friend, we turn into dogged silver-lining hunters. And we lock our own difficult thoughts inside tiny boxes in a corner of our brains because they’re uncomfortable to deal with and we believe that being relentlessly upbeat is the only way forward. Being positive, says Goodman, has become “a goal and an obligation”.

Toxic Positivity is among a refreshing new wave of books attempting to redress the balance by espousing the power of “negative” emotions. Their authors are hardly a band of grouches advocating for us to be miserable. But they’re convinced that leaning into – rather than suppressing – feelings, including regret, sadness and fear brings great benefit. The road to the good life, you see, is paved with tears and furrowed brows as well as smiles and laughter. “I think a lot of people who focus on happiness, and the all-importance of positive emotions, are getting human psychology wrong,” says Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale and the author of The Sweet Spot, which explores why some people seek out painful experiences, like running ultra marathons and watching horror movies. “In a life well lived, you should have far fewer negative than positive emotions, but you shouldn’t have zero negative emotions,” adds Daniel Pink, the author of The Power of Regret. “Banishing them is a bad strategy.”

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