If optimism helps us get rid of problems more easily, too much optimism does the exact opposite: it amplifies them. Pushed to the extreme, positive thinking prescribed as an antidote to suffering prevents us from accepting reality as it is and starting to look for solutions that can make our lives easier.

Although good in essence, the philosophy of “it could be worse” gives the impression that, no matter the circumstances, happiness becomes achievable if we put in enough effort to look at the bright side.

How much truth is there in positive thinking?

Embracing hope in the midst of difficulties has beneficial effects on our mind and body: it keeps stress under control, boosts immunity, and activates dormant resources. The pandemic is the latest example that shows us that coping mechanisms based on positive thinking do work. During this time, many say they have learned to re-evaluate their priorities, show gratitude for the little things, and see the glass as half-full; they have learned to hope.

However, there is a difference between hope that gives us strength and hope that comes from forced optimism. The first allows us to anticipate the future on a positive note and to approach challenges with confidence. The latter forces us to reject the emotions we feel in times of crisis and to live in a permanent state of denial.

Blocking negative emotions

Exaggerated optimism trivializes pain and discomfort.

If we insist on telling ourselves that we are well even though we are not, our problems will not go away on their own. On the contrary, blocking negative emotions will do nothing but sweep them under the rug, until the rug is no longer enough and a great disaster will happen.

Like anything else done in excess, positive thinking—used to cover up or silence the human experience—becomes toxic, says clinical psychologist Jamie Long.

We frequently receive (or give) pieces of advice such as, “Stop thinking about your problems” or “Try to get over it”, but the human mind does not act on command. Several studies have shown that when we are asked to stop thinking about a certain thing, thoughts fly instinctively in that direction, sometimes without being acknowledged. Not acknowledging our thoughts and the emotions that accompany them can later manifest as anxiety, depression, or even physical ailments, especially if they concern topics of major interest to us.

The effects of toxic positive thinking

In addition to the fact that it increases the risk of getting sick, toxic optimism has other harmful consequences, including:

Losing the information that our emotions are trying to convey to us

Emotions are like road signs: they help us understand how reality affects us and assist us in relating correctly to what is happening to us. By denying them, we also deny the opportunity for them to inform our behaviour. For example, if we feel sad, discouraged, or frustrated after losing our job and choose to act as if nothing happened, this self-imposed detachment can make us indifferent to the need of finding a new job. If, instead, we accept dissatisfaction, we can use it to adapt constructively to the situation.

Hindering the process of change

Deprivation and suffering strengthen the motivation to fight for a better life. If we choose to ignore our problems or minimize their importance, change will be long overdue. The same thing happens when we acknowledge our problems, but we think of unrealistic solutions for overcoming them and ignore the obstacles that may arise. Both extremes come from an unjustified optimism, which makes us oblivious to the true value of things.

Lack of an authentic connection with those around us

The state of permanent denial of difficulties complicates relationships with those around us, in the sense of diminishing the chances of authentically connecting with them. For example, if one of the partners in a relationship, when returning from work, prefers to omit the fact that they had a tough day, cultivating forced positive thinking, then obviously the other is unable to respond to their need to release the accumulated tensions. This situation alters both the depth of communication and the fluidity of the relationship.

Moreover, if we encourage others to treat their problems frivolously, without listening to them and without really understanding them, then we ourselves become responsible for creating a barrier that blocks the valuable exchange of feelings and emotions.

The importance of alternatives

Although it’s not easy to change the thinking and behavioural patterns we are accustomed to, there are ways to face difficulties without falling into the extreme of hopeless pessimism.

The National Education Association website proposes a few steps to avoid the pitfalls of toxic optimism:

Maintaining a balance between negative and positive emotions

To maintain this balance you need, first of all:

– to accept negative emotions (being honest with ourselves means easing the burden);

– to avoid labelling emotions based on black-or-white thinking (the sadness associated with parting with a good friend can also be interpreted as gratitude for your past together);

– to decipher the role of all emotions (regardless of their colour, emotions appear to serve a need waiting to be identified as such: guilt implies the need for forgiveness, fear implies the need for security, anger implies the need for justice, etc.)

“When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our emotions—both positive and negative”, psychotherapist Jenny Maenpaa told Health.com.

She also talks about the “yes, and” approach, a strategy that helps us control our emotional balance, expressing both the “dark” side and the “bright” side of personal feelings. So, instead of saying that we fear the future, and stopping there, this strategy teaches us to think ahead until we reach a formulation such as, “I’m afraid of what the future holds and I feel some excitement for the hope that some things may change for the better”.

Adopting concrete solutions

Some problems are too complex to be treated with a simple: “Smile, tomorrow will be better!” Such problems require a concrete plan to keep us afloat.

Thus, while toxic optimism is based on overused slogans and clichés pulled out of the hat of the so-called “lemonade propaganda” (“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”), legitimate optimism is based on concrete solutions, capable of change. If, for example, we are overwhelmed by a large volume of work, we can consider the possibility of reducing overtime and/or reorganizing household tasks. If we are dissatisfied with the fact that we live in the city, we can assess exactly what the chances of moving to a rural area are. If something bothers us, we mustn’t convince ourselves that we actually like it, but find the best alternatives to explore.

Mixing positive thinking with realism

While some are afraid of making plans, others can’t stop making them. The dreams of dreamers are contagious, with their bold way of shaping the future, but they also prove, by counterexample, that remaining level-headed is an indispensable condition for moving from words to action.

Experts recommend that when setting a goal, we first meditate for a few minutes on what we would like to do, and then spend some time visualizing the anticipated obstacles. This way, at the end of the day, we will spare ourselves from the inconvenience of realizing that we were chasing myths instead of pursuing potentially realistic targets.

The concept is called mental contrasting and is the opposite of fantasy or daydreaming, and studies that estimate its effectiveness indicate that people who use this practice are able to set reasonable goals, which they manage to achieve over time.

Language, moderation, altruism

Whether we are talking to ourselves or addressing others, it is good to send messages that show understanding and empathy, bypassing the “Think positive!” advice.

The language used in a crisis situation is important, not only when it comes to encouragement, but also in terms of recognition, by naming the feelings that overwhelm us.

Studies show that clear verbalization of negative states is a useful coping mechanism, just as their censorship deepens the pain. Other things that strengthen us in the face of unfavourable circumstances are self-care, translated into balance maintained at all levels of being (nourishment, rest, social relationships, leisure), and care for others, translated into altruistic behaviour.

It’s no secret that small acts of kindness provide the satisfaction we need to detach ourselves, in a healthy way, from our own shortcomings, limitations, or imperfections.

The tragedy of positive thinking

Sad life stories can leave people with post-traumatic stress disorder, in which case excessive encouragement does not achieve much. On the contrary, it causes feelings of guilt and shame or the tendency to marginalize their own feelings. However, a balanced positive approach has effects even on those who have had it hard.

After a devastating experience in a Nazi camp, the loss of all his loved ones and his own closeness to death, Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concluded that man can find hope, meaning, and significance despite an awareness of the inherent nature of evil in the world and despite facing the most severe suffering one can endure. From his point of view, human suffering has the capacity to lead to personal growth, through the action of what he called tragic optimismthat is, the effort to stay away from the edge of the abyss despite the strong currents pushing us there.

“It [tragic optimism] acknowledges the difficulties and the pain and the suffering of what’s going on, and at the same time, the ability to maintain hope,” writer Emily Esfahani Smith told bbc.com.

It is a vision that, once embraced, forces us to make daily efforts to get used to hard-to-accept issues such as loneliness, physical illness, financial instability, or emotional imbalances, without being complacent regarding the situation and without losing hope for the possibility of “better days”.

“The road to this transformation may be uncomfortable” says Professor Paul Wong of Trent University in Ontario, “because life currently isn’t easy”. However, “It’s OK to be lonely. It’s OK to feel bad, it’s OK to feel anxious”.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging defeat, because there is strength even in defeat, despair, and weakness. We do not need toxic optimism to cover the tracks of our vulnerabilities. This is the reality to be discovered, beyond all the beautiful romanticizing of positive thought overdose, often administered without prescription, and without reason.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.