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A Harvard psychologist explains why forcing positive thinking won’t make you happy


All people, at times, fill up with grief, spill over with joy, or tremble with anger. Most of us are taught early on to manage these emotions by sharing and reveling in the positive ones, while repressing or apologizing for the negative ones. Either way, we learn not to probe our feelings too deeply.

In her new book, “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life,” Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David explains and then challenges this reflexive ways of handling emotion. David argues that we should instead pay close, yet detached attention to our internal experiences. When harnessed, she asserts, the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, and personal narrative that makes up our inner self can become our best teachers. Our emotions can reveal what we value most, and we can then act on those values to evolve into our best selves — resilient, stable, curious, courageous, compassionate and empathetic, David says.

Applying social science research, David lays out a four-part method for becoming more emotionally agile at home and work. We include a summary of her method at the end of the interview, the first installment in our new blog series, Inspiring Reads.

[Do these exercises for two minutes a day and you’ll immediately feel happier, researchers say]

Q: The book is, on one level at least, a critique of our culture’s happiness obsession and the positive-thinking movement espoused by people like Rhonda Byrne in her tome, “The Secret.” What’s the problem with being positive and trying to get happy?

David: A lot of our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant, so people will just say things like, “just be positive and things will be fine.” “The tyranny of positivity” was what a friend of mine called it. She recently died of cancer, and what she meant was if being in remission was just a matter of positive thinking, then all of her friends in her breast cancer support group would be alive today. 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.

What is actually guaranteed in life is that it will not go well sometimes. You’re healthy, until you’re not healthy. You’re with the person you love, until you’re not with the person you love. You enjoy your job, until you don’t. We will find ourselves in situations where we will feel anger, sadness and grief and so on. Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard. I believe the strong cultural focus on happiness and thinking positively is actually making us less resilient.

The next point — and this is very important to me — emotions like sadness, guilt, grief and anger are beacons for our values. We don’t get angry about stuff we don’t care about. We don’t feel sad or guilty about stuff we don’t care about. If we push these emotions away, we are choosing not to learn about ourselves. We are choosing to ignore our values and what is important to us.

And the last point, when we tell ourselves to “think positive” and to push negative or difficult emotions aside, it won’t work. It doesn’t work.

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Q: As Lloyd Dobler asked in “Say Anything,” “How hard is it to decide to be in a good mood and be in a good mood once in while?” Can we not will ourselves to be positive?

David: What the research shows is if we push away thoughts and emotions, they will come back magnified. For example, there is a study that shows what happened when someone who was trying to give up smoking tried not to think about cigarettes. What happened? They started to dream about cigarettes. This is a phenomenon which in psychology is called “leakage.” It is literally the idea that when you try not to think about something, that thing comes back, but amplified. So the idea that we could somehow push our emotions aside to be happy doesn’t make sense.

There is evidence that people who value happiness, people who are focused on being happy, and who set happiness as a goal for themselves actually become less happy over time. Happiness, we’ve found, is the byproduct of pursuing things that have intrinsic value to us. In other words, when you do something you love, that’s when you’ll feel happy. To set a goal around “happiness” is antithetical to finding it.

 Q: So, you’d say “emotional agility” is an alternative to that positive thinking model?

David: Every day we have thousands and thousands and thousands of internal thoughts, emotions, stories and experiences. Emotional agility builds our capacity to engage our inner world in a way that is courageous, curious and compassionate. Whereas positive thinking and avoidance have overemphasized the role of our thoughts, emotional agility is a skill set that builds on our ability to face our emotions, label them, understand them and then choose to move forward deliberately. It is the ability to recognize when you’re feeling stressed, be able to step out of your stress, and then decide how to act in a way that is congruent with your personal values and aligned with your goals.

Q: You lay out a four-pronged path to emotional agility, could you take us through each step?

David: Showing up: The first part of emotional agility is “showing up” to your emotions or facing your emotions. One of the most important parts to being a healthy and whole person is to understand that life is as beautiful as it is fragile and varied. 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. “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.

Stepping out: The next part is called “stepping out,” a mindfulness practice would fall under this section. “Stepping out” is when we experience thoughts and emotions, we create space between ourselves and the emotion. It is that part of ourselves that is wise enough to know that when you have a thought or feeling, it doesn’t mean it is right, and it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. It’s just what you’re feeling.

Walking your why: The third step is “walking your why.” So you’ve shown up to your emotion and created the space, but what choice do you make within that space? Before you can do anything, you have to “know your why,” or know your values. This step is about identifying the beliefs and behaviors that are important to you and then acting.

Moving on: Then, finally, “moving on” and really that is about cultivating effective habits that are congruent with your values and creating want-to goals. A want-to goal is a change that is driven by your values, as opposed to a have-to goal that is externally imposed. If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, you might feel like you have to lose weight because your doctor tells you that you must or out of a sense of shame. What the research has shown is if you feel like you have to lose weight, you’ll see a piece of cake differently. Your sense of temptation will be ramped up.

A want-to goal, however, is deeply connected to what’s important to you. You want to lose weight because you want to be healthy and see your children grow. What we know is when you have a want-to goal, then your sense of physical temptation goes down. It is critical that our goals are aligned with our values in order for us to make real change in our lives.

David also has a quiz on her website to test emotional agility. Take it here.

Neda Semnani is a freelance writer and former columnist for Roll Call. Her work has appeared in the Week, New York Magazine, the Baffler, LA Review of Books, Washington City Paper, BuzzFeed and more. She’s based in Brooklyn.

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