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Positive Psychology Welcomes Your Dark Side

The positive power of negative thinking


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Dr. Jeremy Sutton

3 years ago | 5 min read

Martin Seligman was weeding the garden with his five-year old-daughter Nikki. It was 1999, and he had recently been elected as president of the American Psychological Association (the APA) — the largest and most prestigious organization of psychologists in the United States.

Nikki was singing and dancing while throwing weeds up in the air. Seligman, on the other hand, was grumpy and becoming increasingly annoyed. He yelled. And his daughter walked off, upset.

Returning a few minutes later, she had this to say: “Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being a grouch.”

A child’s honesty can be disarming. After all, Seligman says, Nikki was right. “I had spent fifty years enduring mostly wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years as a walking nimbus cloud in a household radiant with sunshine,” he says.

His general attitude and role as a parent required an overhaul. He should be nurturing his daughter’s growth and encouraging her strengths rather than endlessly correcting her shortcomings, he decided. The short interaction made a profound impact. He resolved to change his outlook on life, his parenting style, and impressively, the field of psychology.

Reaching for the good life

Until then, psychological professionals focused on the emotional problems people face — depression, anxiety, and phobias — sometimes referred to as the disease model. This attention to fixing the mentally unwell had helped many, but by dwelling solely on stopping people from being sad, psychologists had failed others in their search to lead a rich, happy life.

In light of his new role as the head of the APA, Seligman took it upon himself to change the direction of psychology by championing the new field of Positive Psychology with the goal of understanding well-being and how to enjoy the ‘good life.’

Cheerful optimism can negatively affect our longevity, suggesting pessimism may be valuable under particular circumstances.

Seligman knew that the pursuit of happiness was not about ignoring upsetting events in a person’s life — they are inevitable — but instead, he reasoned, to find a way of learning and growing in the face of adversity.

Positive psychology has since proven both popular and successful. Indeed, a 2019 paper agreed that psychology’s relatively new approach has “made important contributions to science and practice since its introduction.”

Qualities aren’t all positive or negative

But what is most exciting and often overlooked is that positive psychology has a dark side.

It asks a crucial question: Could too much happiness, optimism, forgiveness, and altruism (typically seen as positive) be a bad thing? And the answer is most likely, yes.

Also, it suggests that even a prolonged search for such ideal states could yield little, except disappointment.

Itai Ivtzan, in his book Second Wave Positive Psychology ­: Embracing the Dark Side of Life, suggests precisely that. In certain contexts and from particular perspectives, it could be harmful to the individual and those around them to be too much of anything.

We have to move away from the notion that human qualities are either positive or negative, write Avraham Cohen & Heesoon Bai in a 2019 paper. As Seligman himself recognized, we should not be slaves to any human quality, including optimism and happiness.

The upside of negatives

Pessimism provides reality when it is most needed. A seven-decade study found that cheerful optimism can negatively affect our longevity, suggesting pessimism may be valuable under particular circumstances.

And it’s the same with other ‘positive’ traits, such as self-esteem. In excess, it can lead to perceived invulnerability and risky and unhealthy behavior.

Under pressure to be happy

Anyone who turns to the self-help section in a bookshop is offered myriad ways to become happier. But could it be that the more we pursue it, the more elusive it becomes?

“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you.” Henry David Thoreau

And, writes Ivtzan, aren’t we placed under pressure to be happy — made worse when we are feeling low. As a result, we may begin to believe we are happy– entering a ‘false consciousness’–and no longer act in our self-interest.

And this is true of other qualities seen as positive.

Freedom (self-determination), forgiveness, and altruism, while hugely beneficial in moderation, can be harmful in excess. Such extreme pursuit could also be damaging and, ultimately, pointless.

Seeing the positive in the negative

Positive psychology recognizes that those qualities we typically judge as positive may be problematic. It embraces the “dark side of life,” says Ivtzan, recognizing the potential value found in “pessimism, humility, restrictiveness, anger, and sadness.” Value is found in unexpected places. Or as the title to Julie Norem’s book puts it, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

Therefore, we must be careful. While chasing positive qualities can lead to improvements in our mental well-being and our perceived quality of life, they must be balanced and realistic.

Chris Hadfield, the NASA astronaut, comes across as both upbeat and mentally healthy in his book, An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth. Yet, he describes how we benefited most in his training from practicing countless worst-case scenarios and developing a pessimistic mindset that facilitated proactive coping.

Finding balance in life

Mental fitness is acquired through reaching balance in our lives. We must recognize that existence is nuanced and not easily reflected in discrete states such as good and bad or positive and negative. After all, adversity is as essential to triumph and enjoyment as it is to who we are.

And it makes sense. While it may be tempting to say to someone going through a difficult time, look on the bright side, smile it will be alright, there’s always a tomorrow it is ultimately unhelpful if not damaging.

Sometimes life is about perspective, and there is a simple practice that can help.

Spending a few moments in reflection at the end of each day can be invaluable. Think of three things you most enjoyed, three actions you performed well, and three points you learned in the last 24-hours. This reflection activity will remind you that the day was special despite its challenges and the myriad of emotions.

Originally published here.

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Dr. Jeremy Sutton

Psychologist and writer in Positive and Performance Psychology (www.positivepsychology.com). Exploring positive psychology and cognitive science to better understand human potential. Owner of the "Learning to Flourish" community dedicated to sharing the tools for wellbeing (link below).


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