Approaching Shadow, 1954 by Chinese photographer Fan-Ho born in Shanghai, in 1931.
“Don’t be so negative! Think positive!”
— positive thinking evangelist
Reading time: 15-18 mins
How many times have you heard the above smiley command from people who have joined the positive psychology bandwagon? Apart from being a tad self-righteous the proclamation might also mask the person’s inability to process the negative realities of this world.
This “pursuit of happiness” tightly bound with numerous affirmations and fixated beliefs intent on to forcing happiness into being doesn’t deliver. If we do not achieve those heights of impossible joy then we sow the seeds of re-occurring resentment.
As we have explored, positive thinking is an important part of self-betterment, but it is literally only half the equation. There’s a huge caveat that goes unnoticed in the drive to cultivate a better outlook and a happier life. Deny the vital role of negative emotions in this process and and we court serious trouble.
In fact, this blind spot is probably one of the primary reasons for many of our global woes and needs to be fully understood before we immerse ourselves in the positive thinking belief system.
Success in cultivating positive emotions lies in the nature of the methods we use to attain them as much as it does the reasons we embark on such a discipline. If the methods and reasons are faulty, then success may be fleeting and come at a cost.
But “the optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought” right?
No. Not always. In fact hardly ever. If the pessimism of the thought is grounded in the reality of what is, then you can guarantee that the “optimism” and good intentions of the “action” will inevitably create more chaos than order.
As Barbara Ehrenreich described in characteristically blunt terms:
Americans have long prided themselves on being positive and optimistic — traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic but was also a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller “The Secret” promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world. 
This distinctly American obsession with positive thinking tied to a delusional neo-liberal brand of capitalism means “to get what you want” in as little time as possible and with minimum effort; a lifestyle which has permeated virtually every social and cultural domain.
To say that unbridled optimism isn’t always a good idea is an understatement. It’s a big part of why wilful blindness has led us into so many interstate wars, profligate spending, the ignorance of institutional corruption and the immunity of prosecution from those who indulge in systematic child abuse in positions of power. Don’t focus on the negative! Accentuate the positive! And all will be well.
Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill’s Think Rich, Grow Rich are two bestsellers that sold the high of positive thinking as a magic lantern. Just rub your thoughts the right way and your dreams would come true. Although there is in fact, no free lunch and no short-cuts to getting rich or being happy, there are plenty of books, seminars, conferences, retreats, gurus, and coaches out there that tell you otherwise.
Similarly, the willingness to include failure and mistakes on the road to happiness and fulfillment is rarely discussed since we must banish all mention of anything “negative” even if it is a natural part of building character and inner worth. Being a miserable git isn’t going to get you anywhere in the same way investing enormous amounts of cash and energy into being positive will bring you what you desire.
Persistent effort, correctly applied however, is a source of constructive change and the inevitable suffering that goes with it. We can’t skip the steps to wisdom or the development of a core happiness that lasts. And its that wish to cut to the chase and get that elusive peace and harmony that short-changes the present moment. It’s that desire that keeps such a wish in the evemore distant future.
The Waters of Emotion
As we evaluate any psychological technique and healing modality we must also take into consideration the type of personality we have in order to counter extremes. For those wired to extroversion and optimism, positive thinking is a natural shoe-in. Such people usually have a built in ability to process negative associations which allows them to compartmentalise the information and move on with their lives.
For those more introspective and introvert with a somewhat pessimistic eye, positive thinking is sometimes a welcome addition. For those naturally wired to see the world more objectively (which is probably why they are more subdued and depressed as a result) it may be useful in many cases, though not all. In fact, for those more anxious as opposed to melancholic, it may be harmful. But we’ll come back to that later on.
The problem comes with the touchy-feely extrovert or ambivert type for whom these are natural attributes. Positive thinking is analogous to pouring water into a glass that’s already full: it tends to increase those innate qualities and suppress the more negative balancing elements which if not suppressed/repressed would anchor the personality, instead of drowing in anticipatory excess. This imbalance can exacerbate complacency, willful blindness and denial – even filter all lies and inner conflicts through the rationalisation of altruism.
In other words, meeting inevitable adversity is eclipsed in favour of the biochemical feelings that positive thinking can generate. In effect, those persons can become high on the biochemistry of associated beliefs as an end in themselves, which of course, acts as an obstacle to growth.
We perhaps need to remind ourselves that everything seemingly positive and pure can be swiftly transformed into an industry that serves the dominant forces of our age. That’s the nature of the gross material world – to subsume, extract and adapt to what offers the quickest return. Creative adaptation and a strategic comprehension of those forces is the preferred means to make headway. Bullish resistance is futile. Our starting point to any transformation must be to discover the dark side to any pitch that tells us we can be much more than mere automatons. And every expression of the positive, light-bearing veins of existence must have that dark side and it’s our job to become aware of it and how it functions on a personal level.
In truth, the existence of positive emotions and negative emotions is a bit of a misnomer. There are feelings, which give rise to emotions but they derive from the quality of our thoughts as clusters of firing neurons. They can be pushed to extremes or guided toward the median. Emotions are like the ocean and our thoughts are the currents which flow unceasingly across that vast expanse. Damn up the water or resist the natural currents and problems naturally arise.
“The drawbacks of constant, extreme happiness should not be surprising, since negative emotions evolved for a reason. Fear tips us off to the presence of danger, for instance. Sadness, too, seems to be part of our biological inheritance: apes, dogs and elephants all display something that looks like sadness, perhaps because it signals to others a need for help. One hint that too much euphoria can be detrimental comes from studies finding that among people with late-stage illnesses, those with the greatest sense of well-being were more likely to die in any given period of time than the mildly content were. Being “up” all the time can cause you to play down very real threats.”
— Sharon Begley, Newsweek
If we place too much emphasis on the imagined duality of good/bad emotions we inadvertently alter their neutrality toward extremes, instead of experiencing them as a natural part of the ebb and flow of the “ocean.” Allowing the level of our emotional waters to rise and to be known, without identifying too much with the content allows them to flow away as quickly as they came. Without resistance, the light and dark tends to coalesce and find the correct balance because that is their natural state – in union with each other, while serving an essential role in the psyche overall.
The negative finds its role as anchor to the positive aspects of our psyche only if it has pathways unimpeded by limiting beliefs. Fully experiencing emotions and understanding why they arise means allowing proper psychic circulation.
That doesn’t mean we don’t seek to increase the quality and purity of the water nor the proper trajectory of those currents. It just means we take a step back so that we don’t create unnecessary tempests and floods by overidentifying and anticipating in relation to the object of our desire. When we do not interfere it is similar to allowing the autonomic processes of the body take care of themselves without our conscious attention. The latter is only necessary when we are seeking defence of our mind-body system and ways to augment and bring forth what is authentic: our essence. We have enormous resources to work with if we take it slow and trust our mind and body.
Such an approach isn’t profitable however. The industry of positive thinking is predisposed to deny the negative quality of emotions, despite many paying lip-service to it. By doing so, we pretend that half of life doesn’t exist and if we just think nice thoughts, have only light-filled feelings and emotions then all will be right with the world.
Love, peace and compassion go a long way. But they are not enough. If you have all your eggs in one positive basket then it’s more likely that you’ll have reading errors about your own development than If you’d distributed those eggs between the positive and negative baskets equally.
The Laws of Nature tend to ride roughshod over the deification of subjectivity and wishful thinking, as many have discovered. Positive emotions are only real when they are defined by the shadow that is always cast in their wake. Positivity is only brought to life through action directed outwards toward others in our community, grounded by the roots of negative qualities working in tandem. American novelist James Baldwin put in crisp terms: “We can only face in others what one can face in oneself.” How then can we expect to influence the world by locking the shadows in the dungeon of our unconscious and expect a 24 hr positive attitude to usher in a new world?
When confronted with the harsh realities of planet Earth we can choose to retreat into our positive bubble of constant affirmations, group-think approval; positive news and saccharin smiles. That will not address the harsh realities we have inside us either. But the waters of the emotion will rise and the lock on the dungeon will rust. Then it will all be let loose in a tidal wave of unhappy consequences. No amount of positive thinking will be enough to keep it at bay. Then we will be back to a disintegration as a prelude to integration of the light and dark, something that could have been acknowledged long before such a Flood.
Yes, it’s scary down in the dungeon where skeletons, denials and serious imperfections lurk.
For this reason, it requires deliberate self-deception to block out or repress unpleasant possibilities or negative thoughts. An insistence in the work place or in social groups to see happiness and positive thinking as the default position amounts to a form of thought control we can easily do without. Yet, those who have attained a confidence in their path have no need to over-identify with either positive or negative, nor the commoditization of feelings it promotes. Self-reliance and self-control can emerge without buying into the hype.
Self-Control comes not from an exclusively “positive” mind but by letting go of the belief that either polarity provides the answer. The marriage of both polarities results in a greater awareness of our feelings. Selling and celebrating their divorce leads to their alienation and unstable mental health.
Good news for Grouches
Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, PhD knows a thing or two about negative emotions. Her 2017 book Emotional Agility details the benefits of placing our “negative” qualities in the correct light..as it were.
Apart from listing the reams of studies which show the pursuit of happiness for its own sake can actually be quite harmful to our interests and others, here are some of the rewards we reap from paying close attention to what our “darker” thoughts are trying to tell us….
Negative emotions, she states:
- Encourage slower, more systematic cognitive processing
- Summon a more attentive, accommodating thinking style that leads you to really examine facts in a fresh and creative way
- Help us form arguments
- Improve our memory and judgement
- Encourage perseverance
- Make us more polite and attentive
- Encourage generosity.
- Make us less prone to confirmation bias, by cultivating critical thinking.
- Anger can alert us to gaps in our awareness, develop our assertiveness and confront something important.
- Envy can motivate us to make the right efforts and do better
- Embarrassment and guilt can help our relationships and encourage cooperation.
- Sadness can tell us something is wrong and we need to change our life direction or focus. 
Where would the “positive half “of our emotions be without this lot? Well, it seems context and application of knowledge is everything. Certain challenges demand access to the workings of both emotions in proper balance. Otherwise, either emotions on their own are of little use.
“Negative emotions play an important and healthy role in how we understand and react to the world. Guilt and shame are essential to a sense of morality. Anger is a legitimate response to injustice. Sadness helps us process tragedy. And happiness is great too. Just not all the time.”
— Svend Brinkmann, psychology professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University and author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze
In the new age and positive thinking movements critical reasoning is often sidelined as cold intellectualism where love, light and “a path with a heart” are all one ever needs to make our way in the world. Yes, a positive attitude works wonders for team work and stimulating the creative juices but it’s proven to be somewhat of a liability for tasks that require clear analysis and objectivity. One study showed that there were “processing deficits” and “a reduced cognitive capacity to process the message” when a good mood rather than a neutral, or bad mood was dominating. 
If you are in a happy-clappy state of mind it signals the brain that all is well and safe, so that problem-solving isn’t a high priority. You’re on cruise control and everything is A-OK as long as nothing impinges on that blissful state. Yet, if you are busy basking in the rays of the sun while paddling up the proverbial creek you are less likely to see the looming rocks. Those rocks can be anything from failing to see relevant data; making stereotypical judgements due to superficial thinking or selectively choosing one’s focus to the detriment of what is.  Jumping to conclusions is more likely to happen if you are happy than if you are in a neutral or bad mood.
By extension, its far more probable that we see people in a better light and give them the benefit of the doubt when access to more negative emotions would be ringing the alarm bells. Those with a more negative mindset are far more perceptive at reading signals and cues from those who do not have our best interests at heart. And this is a vital skill when we are largely governed by pathological individuals. Which is why those considered to be overly positive and optimistic are the same people that get taken advantage of or worse. They are assumed to be somewhat naive for this reason. 
Again, context is everything.
Pathology, EQ and Cui Bono?
Perhaps this is one of the most insidious consequences of those who embrace positive psychology as a panacea for all ills. Narcissists and psychopaths LOVE rampant positive thinking as it delivers tenderized pieces of human consciousness directly to their plates. As psychologist Sandra L. Brown reminds us: “There is emotional, physical, and relational danger in applying pop psychology principles to something as aberrant as pathology. Trying to ‘attract’ the ‘positive’ to the relationship so the pathology is transformed leaves people ignoring the traits of pathology that can seriously harm them. It is no wonder we are not further ahead in being able to spot abnormal psychology in others and avoid it.” 
(To see how easily our positive emotions can be used against us you might want to read: 20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You).
Therefore, we need more education for the general public on the dangers of pathological individuals in relationships and in positions of power so that positive thinking is applied but only amongst an armoury of psychological defences rather than its current hubristic buffer.
Kindness and generosity tend to go with riding on the wave of a good mood. But interestingly, an attempt to maintain the impossibility of a happy state all the time actually creates a less accurate empathic resonance. When you are unwilling to engage with your negative emotions it’s logical that you might have difficulty in penetrating to the deeper reasons of another’s malaise. Ever had the experience of going under for the third time and trying to explain that darkness to one that believes s/he inhabits the realm of perpetual light and bliss? In the eye of the self-assigned lightworker, a strange dissonance ensues between empathy and repulsion.
The net result is we’d rather like to smash that person’s face in – which isn’t exactly a good example of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is the ability to manage one’s emotions and that of others. A term coined by social psychologist Daniel Goleman, it’s a valuable description of when our positive emotions are working together with the steering power of the negative side. However, we seldom hear about the latter or when so-called EQ isn’t sufficiently anchored, and furthermore, how emotional intelligence can be used for purely self-serving goals.
Think about it. A superior EQ can just as easily be used to manipulate and deceive as a high intellectual IQ; it’s only one slice of the genetic, psychological and spiritual complexity that makes us human – or not. Those exhibiting Dark Triad symptoms quite happily use extremely good EQ quotients to trap and ensnare. Narcissists, Machiavellian types and psychopaths routinely use such abilities to gain dominance in their chosen field of predation.  As Justin Bariso explains writing in an article for Time magazine EQ furnishes the “capacity to accurately perceive others’ abilities to persuade, influence or even manipulate people” but which can also… “… serve as a self-defense mechanism – a type of ’emotional alarm system’ that alerts you to the fact that someone is attempting to manipulate your feelings, to get you to act in a way that is not in your best interests or that conflicts with your values and principles.”
True emotional intelligence lives up to its name when married to critical thinking and a finely honed intuitive antenna. When confronted with such people we know better to engage in such inversions when our conscience is also activated. And that is far more important than getting lost in fantasies of the ultimate ideal. In fact, such perspicacity and defensive manoeuvres might just save your life.
And that’s a positive outcome.
The upshot of all this seems to be a question of emotional diversity leading to an awareness of context and knowing how to develop and refine our thoughts as they translate to feelings and emotions. With practice this leads to perspicacity and resilience when things are challenging. When you triumph over adversity then happiness is well-deserved and earned.
A general positive attitude with a low hum of negative emotion keeping watch in the background seems to be the ideal, and that’s exactly what psychologists have discovered in a recent study. It stated: “high levels of positive emotion and low levels of negative emotion are an essential component of health and subjective well-being.” And by applying this knowledge carefully and methodically, we have the long-term capacity to become: “…highly self-complex individuals (i.e., people with many distinct self-aspects) [who are] less vulnerable to swings in affect and self-appraisals in response to life events than individuals with limited self-aspects.” 
It is by simplifying our quest to become soul-centered that we kickstart self-growth. And it begins like anything in nature, slowly yet firmly; accumulating small improvements over time and removing the useless clutter of erroneous beliefs and emotional debris of the past. We cannot expect to jump from an acorn to an oak over night. But the effort to push up towards the light with roots firmly in the earth leads us to greater and greater complexity of a quality we can cope with and share – positively and negatively, according to context.
 ‘Overrated Optimism: The Peril of Positive Thinking’ By Barbara Ehrenreich, Time, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009. | http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1929155,00.html
 pp. 57-59; David, Susan; Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life (2016)
’Processing deficits and the mediation of positive affect in persuasion’ Mackie DM, Worth LT. J Pers Soc Psychol.1989 Jul;57(1):27.-40 | ‘Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?’ by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz; Scientific American Mind, May/June 2011.
’Happiness and Stereotypic Thinking in Social Judgment’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 66(4):621-632 · April 1994. |DOI: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061 | https://www.researchgate.net/journal/0022-3514_Journal_of_Personality_and_Social_Psychology
 ‘Bliss is ignorance: How the magnitude of expressed happiness influences perceived naiveté and interpersonal exploitation’ |On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception’ Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44(5):1362-1367 · September 2008. | DOI: ” href=”http://dx.doi.org/10.101610.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.010 | https://www.researchgate.net/journal/0022-1031_Journal_of_Experimental_Social_Psychology
 ‘What We Believe About Pathology and Relational Health’ – Positive Psychology has ingrained a mantra into society’s psyche, Sandra L. Brown, M.A., Psychology Today, 11 Jul 2012 | https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/pathological-relationships/201207/what-we-believe-about-pathology-and-relational-health
 ‘Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism-popularity link at zero acquaintance.’ J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Jan;98 (1):132-45. doi: 10.1037/a0016338. by Back MD, Schmukle SC, Egloff B. | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20053038 | Journal of Nonverbal Behavior,, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 129–143 | ‘The Relationship Between Narcissistic Exploitativeness, Dispositional Empathy, and Emotion Recognition Abilities’ by