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Is Encouraging Positivity Helpful or Harmful?

Is encouraging positivity helpful or harmful?

Positivity is a buzzword in recent years.

In fact, you have probably heard people recently urging you or others to be positive, to focus on positivity, or to strive to be happy.

Philosophers and other thinkers and writers have long explored how humans can be more happy.

For example, the Buddha was especially concerned with how we can decrease suffering in ourselves and the world.

All drawings and paintings in this post are by me.

You can read more about this here: The Buddha on Our Thoughts, Anxiety, and Suffering.

And the Epicureans and Stoics, two schools of ancient philosophy, were especially concerned with how people could cultivate a more peaceful and pleasurable life.

Also, as one more example, the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, was especially concerned with human flourishing.

He wrote at length about the connection between human virtue and flourishing. You can read more about this here: How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues

So, great thinkers have always focused on happiness and related issues.

However, recently the topics of positivity and happiness have gained new momentum with the rise of a movement called Positive Psychology.

You can read more about positive psychology here: Harvard Health Publishing.

Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, catalyzed the Positive Psychology movement in the 90s.

Seligman spent many years researching learned helplessness and depression.

Then he shifted his focus to human flourishing and began publishing research on topics like character strengths and resilience.

And he inspired a new field of psychology, positive psychology.

Positive psychology focuses on positive mindsets and practices people can adopt to help them cultivate happiness.

Researchers in the positive psychology movement often focus on related topics like compassion, gratitude, and flow. Flow is a mental state highly conducive to life satisfaction.

Now, there are very good reasons why the positive psychology movement has gained such momentum.

It helps us remember what we can control.

On the one hand, a variety of factors including our biology, environment, and past experiences (like presence of trauma) affect our levels of happiness.

However, there are some aspects of our happiness that are, indeed, under our control.

For example, here are a few such actions and habits in our control that promote happiness.

Research suggests that people can learn to be more optimistic by shifting from learned helplessness to learned optimism.

Learned optimism theory helps people change how they talk about and view failure and adversity.

Research also suggests that people can increase their sense of agency by tapping into their character strengths.

And character strengths come from universal virtues all people in all time periods have been able to develop.

As an ethicist, this is one of my favorite insights of positive psychology. And you can read more about it here: VIA Institute on Character.

Lastly, researcher and psychology professor Kristin Neff has demonstrated the power of self-compassion.

Learning to practice self-compassion can help us decrease levels of anxiety and depression and increase our levels of happiness and well-being.

You can learn more about this in her excellent Ted Talk: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.

And you can also read more about her research here: Self-Compassion: Dr. Kristin Neff.

These are just a handful of the exciting studies related to positive psychology.

They demonstrate that we can greatly enhance our own well-being and positive emotions by adopting optimistic mindsets, attitudes, and habits.

So, on the one hand, I completely understand why people encourage other people to be positive.

On the other hand, there are also times when urging people to be positive can be misguided.

For example, when someone is suffering a lot of pain and sadness, what they often need is someone to grieve with them.

That is, they need someone to sit with them in their suffering and to recognize, along with them, that life can be extremely hard.

This what we do when we hold and comfort a scared, crying child.

Crying children need presence and comfort, not directives to be positive or snap out of it. When we create a safe harbor for crying children in this way, we help them feel safe and secure.

And this allows them to cope with and move past their painful feelings.

And suffering adults need this same kind of safety and security. We don’t usually hold and speak to suffering adults the same way we do to suffering children.

However, acting like a safe, comforting shelter to a suffering friend is usually much more effective and appropriate than urging them to be positive.

After all, there are broken things in our life and the world. And grief over such brokenness is appropriate. And compassion for our grief is also appropriate.

Showing compassion is a pathway to future positivity. However, showing compassion is different from telling people to be positive when they suffer.

(Also, positive psychologists like Kristin Neff would agree.)

In addition, as strange as it may sound, sometimes our suffering signals a period of enlightenment or rebirth.

Saint John of the Cross, a Christian mystic, referred to such an experience as a dark night of the soul. Such an experience can feel like dissolution and disintegration.

Cross writes,

 …it is most fitting and necessary, if the soul is to pass to these great things, that this dark night of contemplation should first of all annihilate and undo it in its meannesses, bringing it into darkness, aridity, affliction and emptiness;

for the light which is to be given to it is a Divine light of the highest kind, which transcends all natural light, and which by nature can find no place in the understanding.

And folks from other traditions, both spiritual and non-spiritual, have experienced something like the dark night of the soul, too.

Such dark nights can occur when tragedy or suffering reveal to us that we must live our life a different way.

Or such a night occurs when we realize that the values around which we organize our life no longer serve us.

In any case, when someone is going through a dark night of the soul, they need spiritual or therapeutic guidance rather than admonitions to be positive.

Folks in these situations need space and understanding as they undergo their dark night.

On the other hand, sometimes when people are suffering, it is a result of social situations that cause them unnecessary suffering.

Folks in these situations need help and change.

For instance, did you know that certain social conditions can degrade the ability of a country’s citizens to have strong mental health and to flourish?

On the other hand, certain conditions can encourage their mental health and their ability to flourish as human beings.

In fact, there are some countries that measure their country’s happiness (and ability to flourish) with a tool called the Gross Happiness Index.

One such country is Bhutan.

The leaders of Bhutan argue that Gross National Happines (GNH) is a better tool for measuring the well-being of its people than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (GDP measures  how much money a country makes.)

GDP is how countries often measure their overall well-being.

And recent research suggests that people who measure well-being by GNH rather than GDP are on to something.

Such research indicates that there are social habits and practices countries can adopt that increase the well-being of its citizens.

When we do this, we not only benefit other people. We also benefit ourselves greatly.

That’s because the number one indicator of well-being in life is positive relationships.

You can read more about this here.

Positive relationships aren’t just the relationships we have with our close friends and families.

They are the relationships we have with our neighbors and our co-workers.

And they are the relationships we have with our justice officials, and the folks with whom we interact at the grocery store and the doctor’s office.

In fact, the happiest countries in the world demonstrate high levels of trust and positive relationships all throughout the country.

And they indicate that these positive relationships result from both individual decisions and community policies.[1]

For instance, take Finland. Finland has achieved recognition of the happiest country in the world for six years in a row according to the World Happiness Report.

Finland’s happiness results from social factors like “healthcare, education, the economy, human rights, democratic governance and a culture of volunteerism.”

So, it’s important to note that social factors have an important influence on happiness and positivity.

That’s because if we think it is important for people to be positive, it makes sense to do things that do in fact help them be more positive.

And it appears that certain social and economic arrangements, in addition to individual choice, directly impact people’s ability to be happy.

And, in fact, the positive psychology movement has recently developed recommendations related to society and individual flourishing.

You can read more about this here: Measuring the Well-Being of Nations.

So, is encouraging positivity helpful or harmful?

Recognizing that we can make specific, individual choices that increase our personal happiness is a crucial realization.

It gives us a sense of agency in our own lives.

That’s helpful.

And regarding whether we should encourage other people to be positive, it depends on when and how we go about doing this.

For example, as a professor, I share different techniques with my students that can greatly improve their happiness, optimism, and sense of agency in the classroom.

That is, I show them how to be more positive in the classroom.

And that’s because the more students cultivate authentic[2], positive emotions, the more they succeed in academics and relationships.

Why wouldn’t I want such good outcomes for my students?

But sometimes my students are suffering. In those moments, they need my compassion rather than my directives to be more positive.

In addition, sometimes I accidentally make unwise decisions that directly impact my students’ ability to feel confident and optimistic in class.

For instance, I may construct unrealistic assignments or assign too much work in a week.

In these situations, the proper response to student stress is not to encourage them to be more positive.

Rather, I need to consider how I can make better choices as a professor.

And the same is true in our relationships with other people.

Sometimes sharing strategies for being positive is helpful. But sometimes people suffering at an individual and political level need compassion.

And sometimes they need us to consider how to change our individual or social behavior so we can better support their ability to be happy.

Positivity, optimism, and flourishing have both individual and social components.

It’s wise to support these components both in our own lives and the lives of others.


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[1] It’s important to note that positive social relationships are one of the metrics researchers use to measure national happiness.

The six metrics they use pertain to GDP, social support, health freedom, generosity, and justice and fairness.

The more countries score highly in these metrics, the more people tend to report high levels of well-being.

However, a long-running Harvard study found that positive relationships are the most important factor for personal happiness. You can read more about this here.

[2] By authentic here, I mean based on true ideas about themselves and the world.

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