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

As children, many people are told to focus on the positive things in life, and to block out the negative thoughts, experiences, and situations we have found ourselves in.

While that might help in the moment, there is growing evidence that pushing out those negative feelings can actually make us less happy in the long run.

Susan David, a Harvard Psychologist and Professor recently published a book called “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life”.

The focus on this book is to get people out of the positive-thinking rut and help them dig deeper into their situations to learn from them.

Learning from our situations is the only way we can become better people, grow into ourselves, and come closer to knowing about our purpose and choices in life.

The psychologist, professor and author provides a series of steps for people to follow in order to start becoming comfortable with discomfort so that they can grow and learn from their experiences.

Why forcing positive thinking isn’t very helpful

According to Susan David, when we only focus on the good in our lives, we eliminate the need to stretch outside of ourselves and that can cause problems for us, especially for children who are trying to find their way in the world.


If we’re going to become a “well-rounded” person, David says we can’t just focus on one aspect of life:

“Our contract with life is a contract that is brokered with fragility, and with sadness, and with anxiety. And if we’re going to authentically and meaningfully be in this world, we cannot focus on one dimension of life and expect that focusing on that dimension is going to then give us a well-rounded life.”

The 4 steps to understanding your emotions

Tapping into our emotions can be hard to do. But it doesn’t have to be impossible if we are willing to give it a try and work at being better at it. Susan David says there are 4 steps to understanding our emotions so that we can move forward.

1) Be present and show up

First, Susan David says we need to “show up.” This is a term being thrown around in a lot of self-help books these days, but it means that you need to be invested in embracing different moments in your life in order to make the most of them.

It’s not about letting yourself become overrun with emotion. Showing up means you bring all of yourself to the table and you use all of your skills and resources to get to the bottom of your emotions.

According to David, this is a crucial and powerful first step:

“When we show up fully, with awareness and acceptance, even the worst demons usually back down.”

2) Become an observer of yourself

Second she encourages people to step out of their comfort zone and look at situations as if they were bystanders and not experiencing the situations themselves.

This can be uncomfortable, but can help you see how you are currently handling negative thoughts and you can start to develop skills for recognizing them when they do arise.

David describes this step best:

“Life is full of diving boards and other precipices, but, as we’ve seen throughout this discussion of emotional agility, making the leap is not about ignoring, fixing, fighting, or controlling fear—or anything else you might be experiencing. Rather, it’s about accepting and noticing all your emotions and thoughts, viewing even the most powerful of them with compassion and curiosity, and then choosing courage over comfort in order to do whatever you’ve determined is most important to you.”

3) Why are you doing what you’re doing?

The third suggestion is the “walk your why”, which means that you need to not only know why you are pursuing a goal or a dream, or why you want to get better control over your emotions, but you need to actually take steps to improve those things in your life.

David says there are three areas in your life to look at:


“In looking for the right places to make these tiny changes, there are three broad areas of opportunity. You can tweak your beliefs—or what psychologists call your mindset; you can tweak your motivations; and you can tweak your habits. When we learn how to make small changes in each of these areas, we set ourselves up to make profound, lasting change over the course of our lives.”

4) Move forward

Finally, David says people need to move on and keep moving so they can make progress in their lives.

This is all about pushing forward. But without taking the time to examine the negative things in our lives, we can’t learn about how to turn them around.

And to make change in our life, David says we don’t need to do anything drastic:

“The most effective way to transform your life, therefore, is not by quitting your job and moving to an ashram, but, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, by doing what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Avoidance is common, but the strongest people in life can take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror, determine what they want to change about themselves or their situation, and act on those decisions to actually make the changes they desire.

Telling yourself everything is hunky-dory isn’t going to evoke change in anyone. So, knock it off.


RELATED ARTICLE: 7 brutal truths I learned about life after giving up “positive thinking”

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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