Stop Trying to Be Happy: Forced Positivity Tends to Backfire

Do you use positive affirmations? Do you struggle to keep negative feelings at bay?

Oliver Burkeman contends that you should stop trying to be happy by forcing positive thoughts. He says that doing so only exacerbates negative feelings; it doesn’t make them go away.

Read more to learn how forcing happiness can have the opposite result.

Stop Trying to Be Happy

Burkeman argues that you should stop trying to be happy if that means thinking only positive thoughts. He notes that this can, ironically, cause you to experience more negative emotions. He explains that trying to focus only on positive thoughts—for example, by using positive affirmations or visualizations—requires you to suppress and ignore, rather than address, negative thoughts and feelings.

However, ignoring negative thoughts doesn’t eradicate them. Instead, these thoughts simmer and grow in the shadows of your mind, creating internal conflict between what you really feel and what you think you should feel. And, the moment you feel too stressed out or tired to maintain your positive state of mind, these negative thoughts resurface with more intensity, creating more distress than you felt before you tried to suppress them.

(Shortform note: Tony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within) expands on what Burkeman says by explaining that the more you try to avoid negative thoughts and emotions, the more likely you are to behave in ways that exacerbate your emotional pain. For example, you might avoid situations that could trigger negativity, which means you miss out on potentially meaningful emotions and experiences. Or, you might pretend not to feel your negative emotions because you don’t think you should be feeling them. Eventually, they become so intense that they blow up in an irrational outburst.)

You Blame Yourself for Your Negative Feelings

Burkeman states that, when negative thoughts and feelings inevitably surface, you assume that your emotional distress is your fault—if only you could maintain a positive mindset, you wouldn’t feel this way. This self-judgment creates two effects: First, it adds a layer of guilt and inadequacy to your already negative state of mind. Second, it perpetuates a destructive cycle where guilt for not maintaining constant positivity pushes you to strive even harder for it, often exacerbating the very thoughts and feelings you’re trying to avoid. 

For example, you feel anxious about a work presentation because you doubt your competence. To quell your anxiety, you force yourself to think positively about your capabilities. However, this only deepens the rift between your genuine feelings of inadequacy and the positive front you’re putting on. This, in turn, amplifies your initial anxiety and adds negative self-judgment for not being positive enough.

Identifying With Negative Thoughts and Feelings Fuels Self-Blame

According to clinical psychologists, you’re likely to exacerbate self-judgment  if you identify with your negative feelings by saying, “I am [the thought or feeling]”—for example, “I’m scared,” or “I’m sad.” Such identification intertwines your negative thoughts and feelings with your self-perception.

Let’s look at three ways identifying with these feelings might intensify self-blame:

• Because you view these negative thoughts and feelings as inherent facets of who you are, you feel powerless to disentangle yourself from them. For example, “I’m sad; that’s just the way I am.”

• Challenging these negative thoughts and emotions feels like an attack on who you are, resulting in self-judgment. For example, “I’m sad, so there must be something inherently wrong with me.”

• When your negative thoughts and emotions persist or intensify, you internalize the blame, thinking, “I failed” instead of, “My approach failed.” For example, “I’m always sad because I’m incapable of thinking happy thoughts.”

Instead of identifying with your negative thoughts and feelings, reframe them as temporary experiences. For example, “I feel sad right now.”

Exercise: How Does Positive Thinking Affect Your Happiness?

According to Burkeman, believing that thinking positively is the only way to achieve happiness and success can make you less happy. In this exercise, explore how forcing yourself to be positive, pursuing success goals, and grasping for control may undermine your well-being and happiness.

  1. Describe a recent situation where you tried to force yourself to think positively. How did this attempt influence your emotional state—did it alleviate or exacerbate your negative feelings about the situation?
  2. Consider a goal you’re determined to achieve. Write down any ways in which pursuing this goal might have led to negative consequences or caused you to miss opportunities in other areas of your life.
  3. Recall a time when you tried to micromanage every detail of a situation to avoid discomfort or uncertainty. Describe this situation, how you attempted to control it, and the effects on your anxiety and stress.
  4. Based on your reflections above, which would benefit you more—thinking positively, exploring Burkeman’s alternative approaches, or trying a bit of both? Explain your reasoning.
Stop Trying to Be Happy: Forced Positivity Tends to Backfire

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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