Positive thinking can be beneficial to our mental health, but, believing you can be happy all the time or beating yourself up because you’re not, is ultimately a waste of time. Humans just aren’t built that way.
Happiness is the cultural order of the day. The insidious positive thinking industry pelts us daily with self-help advice, motivational memes and vapid wall plaques. We’re constantly pressured into believing if we’re not happy we’re doing something wrong. We’re missing out. If we can’t think positively we’ll somehow jinx our luck.
“Think positive and positive things will happen”. Yeah? Well I was catastrophising all the way to the corner shop and I still won £3.30 on Euromillions this week. In your face optimism.
The internet’s endless gushing of motivational drivel undermines the nuances of human emotions. Or at least our expectations of them. Ask folk what they want in life and a majority will answer “to be happy”. But being constantly happy isn’t the natural state of the human mind. If it were we’d be extinct.
If someone punches me in the face I’m not going to “love like I’ve never been hurt”, I’m either going to punch them back or run away (run away most likely). When I lost my job I didn’t skip through the fields chirping my only limit is me! I felt bad. Really bad. Those bad feelings were an emotional response to my situation. They told me to make changes in my life or face homelessness.
Positive and negative emotions are an ingrained part of our survival mechanism; evolutionary triggers that help us evaluate our experiences, negotiate life’s ups and downs and make choices accordingly. While negative feelings may be unpleasant they essentially they keep us alive. They can be red flags for other important matters; underlying health issues such as thyroid problems can cause low mood, certain relationships and situations can trigger us to feel bad so we take action or move ourselves to safety. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
Denying our full range of emotions is what leads us to feeling discontent. Studies have shown fighting against intrusive thoughts makes you harbour more of them. In his thought suppression study, Professor Daniel Wagner asked participants not to think about a white bear for five minutes. For the next five he asked them to think about a white bear. During the experiment participants vocalised whatever was on their minds and, each time they thought of a white bear, rang a bell.
The participants asked to suppress thoughts of a white bear rang the bell almost twice as much as those in a control group. Other researchers replicating the effect with different types of experiments reached the same conclusion: the very act of suppressing a thought makes it fight back even harder.
In their book ‘The Negative Side of Positive Thinking’, Dr Ann Davidson and Dr Simon Moss, argue positive thinking encourages suppression and magnifies the averse consequences of doing so. They compare suppression of thoughts and feelings to borrowing money to pay a debt, “the immediate crisis seems to dissipate but the overarching problem is merely amplified.”
If avoiding unpleasant feelings stymies emotional growth then it’s best to accept the pain. Acknowledge your feelings. Remind yourself that’s all they are. Just feelings. An impermanent, transient state that will pass.
Meditation is a great way to view thoughts with perspective. This lovely headspace animation is a good metaphor for the practise. Viewers are encouraged to imagine themselves sitting by the side of the road, the passing cars representing thoughts and feelings. All you have to do is sit and watch the traffic pass, not jump into the road and hijack it. The more you do this, the more you can find a place of calm.
For some cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective practical approach for dealing with negative thought patterns by identifying, challenging and rethinking them. Keeping a journal or talking about feelings and experiences with someone you trust can also be a cathartic way of understanding oneself and bringing closure to a situation.
If it’s just a rant you need, pick someone who’ll let you get it off your chest without interruption. It’s natural for friends and loved ones to offer advice or try to solve our problems but it can also be frustrating. Don’t be afraid to let them know a listening ear is help enough.
Remember, taking the good with the bad is an important part of life and vital for your mental health. Happiness is wonderful. It’s also impermanent. Much better then to work through your issues and strive for contentedness.
A wee caveat: Everybody feels down from time to time but if you’ve been feeling persistently low for weeks or months it might be worth considering getting some support. There’s absolutely no shame in it. Depression is a genuine health condition which can affect anyone no matter how perfect or imperfect your life. Your feelings aren’t trivial, you don’t have to “get over it”, you deserve to be cared for. The sooner you see your GP to talk through options the sooner you can start your recovery. The NHS has lots of helpful information on treatments.
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