Harvard Psychologist Explains Why Forced Positive Thinking Won’t Automatically Make You Happy


susan david psychologist positive thinking

Harvard psychologist Susan David. Photo via Relavox.com.


One of the most exciting developments of the 21st century and social media culture is the abundance of positive messages we see each day, a constant reminder to strive for our best life.

Our Facebook and Instagram timelines have become like a 24/7 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, in which seemingly every message has a dramatically positive refrain.

Meanwhile inside of our minds, an entirely different picture unfolds: we’re human beings after all, and our thoughts run the gamut of emotions ranging from happiness to frustration to joy, anger, sorrow and everything in-between.

We speak in terms of pure, unmitigated positivity, and yet few people know what they truly want, let alone put in the countless hours necessary to make their dreams a reality.

In the midst of all of this, depression has become the leading cause of disability worldwide, even as society’s message persists: be positive, and you will be happy.

Grin and bear it, don’t “complain,” don’t rock the boat, and everything will be alright in the end.

But according to one prominent Harvard-educated author and psychologist, purely positive thinking won’t automatically make you happy after all.

And in the wrong context, it could even be as self-sabotaging as your negative thoughts over time.


Positive Environments vs. Supportive Environments

While positivity can create a productive and welcoming environment for all, too much of it has its downsides, just like everything else.

That point was hammered into the consciousness of Harvard psychologist and author Susan David after her experience with a friend who later died of cancer.

“A lot of our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant, so people will just say things like, ‘just be positive and things will be fine,’ she said.

Her friend had been in a breast cancer support group, but the overwhelming positivity did not mesh with her in her healing journey.

An overly positive environment that is not welcoming of other emotions, dissenting views or belief systems can do more harm than good (not to mention many conventional cancer treatments, but that’s another story altogether).

“The tyranny of positivity’ was what a friend of mine called it,” David says in an interview with The Washington Post.

“By sending out the message that our thoughts are responsible for creating our health, well-being, and reality, we are overvaluing the power of our thoughts, while making people feel culpable when something bad happens to them. They feel it is because they weren’t positive enough.”

Perhaps in the case of the psychologist’s friend, a more supportive, and non-judgmental environment may have been more powerful and uplifting.

For cancer and other disease-addled patients, a combination of both is generally preferred.

Automatically Correlating Positivity With Happiness May Not Be the Best Idea

That’s not to say that positivity is by itself a bad thing, by any means.

Positive thinking and speech help us to express our innermost desires to ourselves and our peers, and help push us through difficult circumstances. When a group of like-minded positive people get together, pure magic can unfold.

But in the long run, automatically associating positivity with happiness just might be a one-way ticket to being unhappy, according to recent research.

David cites a study in her book published in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion which found that people who were asked to read about the benefits of being happy were actually less happy after watching a happy movie than people who read something different.

Another study found that people who prioritized and valued being happy as often as possible were more likely to experience negative emotions and depression.

True feelings of happiness arise in the moment naturally, and we can’t be happy all the time no matter how positive we become toward our daily circumstances.

Make Happiness a Priority: What Makes You Happy?

The key, according to study co-author Lahnna I. Catalino, is to schedule your days in order to maximize happiness, in order to make time for what truly stirs your soul.

The anticipation and good feelings both before and after the event provide a source of sustainable happiness that will come naturally.

“When people are very unhappy and are focused on thinking positive, what it can actually lead them to do is to then push difficult thoughts and emotions aside,” David said to Business Insider.

Without processing and releasing our negative emotions (David recommends journaling, which helped her after the loss of her father at a young age), they will only continue to fester and leave us with more emotional pain and frustration.


Expressing and Processing Our Emotions Authentically

Over time, positive thinking and commentary can become classified as “good” while even the most valuable forms of constructive criticism or the most freeing forms of self-expression can be seen as “bad.”

But beyond the simplistic ideas of positive vs. negative thinking is what David describes as “emotional agility,” a system of accepting your emotions as they are and expressing and observing yourself authentically.

positive thinking forced

Susan David’s book, ‘Emotional Agility.’ Click to learn more.


“Instead of looking at our emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, you know, ‘I want to be right or wrong,’ rather our emotions just “are,” said David, the author of ‘Emotional Agility:’ Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life’ on the Lewis Howes YouTube channel.

In her book, David lays out a four-part method for developing this type of “agility,” which can help a person become more internally satisfied rather than externally happy or “positive.”

How to Develop What Harvard Author Calls “Emotional Agility”

By practicing emotional resilience, we can stay grounded in the present while experiencing our emotions, and life in its purest form.

“And so when I talk about resilience, I talk about how I navigate the world as it is, not as I wish it to be,” David says on the Howes show.

Practicing this type of resilience is just one part of how people can develop emotional agility.

The Harvard psychologist’s four-part system for developing ‘Emotional Agility’ as referenced in the book is as follows:

1. “Showing Up” and Facing Your Emotions-

The first and most important step toward developing emotional agility is to simply face up to your true emotions as they are, without judgment.

“’Showing up’means you drop any struggle with yourself about whether your feelings are right or wrong or if you should or shouldn’t feel a certain way,’” she says in the Post interview.

“We don’t need to be dominated by one emotion or by a struggle with our emotions. We are big enough to contain all of our emotions.”

2. “Stepping Out”-

According to David, this step is the process of creating space between ourselves and the emotion that we feel at a given time.

Each of us has the power to feel what we’re feeling without necessarily having to act on it, or to judge it as being right or wrong.

3. “Walking Your Why” –

Different people have different values and belief systems, and that’s perfectly fine. In order to develop emotional agility, the key is to learn how to live and act according to your own values, instead of always getting caught up in the value systems of others.

4. “Moving On” –

The purpose of this fourth and final step is to cultivate new and effective habits that are congruent with your values and goals, David says in the interview.

Also, know the different between “want-to” goals and “have-to” goals; the former is motivated by your values while the latter is an externally-imposed goal that typically comes from the expectations and rules of society, or other people in your life.

“It is critical that our goals are aligned with our values in order for us to make real change in our lives,” she says.

Learn More About Emotional Agility

Emotional agility may take time to develop, but once you experience it, there’s really no other way to live.

For more information on the topic, you can find Susan’s book on Amazon.com, which currently has over 70% five-star reviews.

You can also watch her TEDx talk, which was one of the most popular in the organization’s history and details her story of how journaling changed her life (around the 12:50-minute mark), by clicking below:

This article was first written in July 2018 and updated in January 2020. For more information on Susan David’s book, click here


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About Nick Meyer

Nick Meyer is a journalist who's been published in the Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News and several other outlets. He founded AltHealthWORKS in 2012 to showcase extraordinary stories of healing and the power of organic living, stories the mainstream media always seemed to miss. Check out Nick's Amazon best-seller 'Dirt Cheap Organic: 101 Tips For Going Organic on a Budget' by clicking here, as well as its sequel Dirt Cheap Weight Loss.