As we move into 2021, we are all wondering what next year will bring and how we should prepare so we can make the best of it. What do we need to let go of so that we can manifest our dreams? What should we focus on that brings us joy? How should we remain positive in these difficult times?
But what if our positive thinking is actually setting us up for a fall? Perhaps it is better to open ourselves up to the full range of human emotions and be honest and open about how we actually feel. This is something that journalist, filmmaker, and author of The Pursuit of Happiness (Hutchinson, 2016) Ruth Whippman is keen to impress. “There is a lot of pressure around positivity in our culture,” she tells Vogue. “There is definitely a place for it, but I also believe that pressure can be quite destructive and shaming.”
To find out more, we caught up with Whippman about the politics of thinking positively and why it’s so much better to be emotionally authentic.
In The Pursuit of Happiness you discuss how chasing happiness is actually making us more unhappy. What are your thoughts on the idea of positive thinking?
“I believe that trying to force ourselves to feel any particular way can lead to shame when we are not feeling the ‘right’ thing or even a sense that we are almost gaslighting ourselves. Rather than putting pressure on ourselves to ‘think positive’ or feel any particular way, we are better off being honest and open about how we actually feel. I also believe that one of the kindest, most helpful things we can do for other people is to allow them to be emotionally honest with us, to make space for them to share their ugly, scary feelings without judgement and be there for them when they do. Denying emotions doesn’t make them go away—they just show up in other, more indirect ways.”
There seems to be a lot of traction around thinking positively. Where did this movement come from? And what does positivity mean to you?
“The positive thinking movement dates back to the 19th century and has long been a strain of the wider self-help movement. It gained a lot of traction in the 1990s and beyond with the emergence of academic positive psychology, which emphasises gratitude and thinking positively. As I write in The Pursuit of Happiness, positive psychology research has many problems. It tends to emphasise individual effort in wellbeing, and de-emphasise the importance of social justice and more collective approaches.”
Why do you think positive thinking is so appealing?
“Because it helps us believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems and that we have a lot of control over our own happiness. For example, if we simply think different thoughts then our problems will disappear. I don’t believe it’s that simple. A healthier approach is emotional acceptance and authenticity.”
Do you believe in the power of positive thinking?
“I have found both from my own experience and from my reading of the research that we are more likely to be able to feel authentically positive feelings if we make space for negative emotions. If we deny these negative emotions, they tend to show up in indirect and often destructive ways.
“[Personally] I know that I am able to truly feel and give voice to my most negative emotions and fears, and that tends to take away their power. Paradoxically, it allows space for the more positive emotions to rise to the surface.”
What are the benefits of thinking positively?
“There is something to be gained from looking honestly at situations and often seeing that there are more positives than might be immediately obvious. But not if we are denying our own feelings in the process.”
How has COVID-19 changed our relationship with ideas around positivity?
“This period has been so immensely challenging. Fear, grief, the loss of loved ones, financial insecurity, health concerns, anxiety, job losses, loneliness, loss of connection, parental overwhelm, massive racial and class disparities in outcomes—these are just a few of the challenges we are facing.
“We have also seen immense resilience and impressive feats of the human spirit. Rather than forcing ourselves to think positively, I believe we should allow ourselves to feel the grief and fear that we are collectively experiencing and be honest about it, both with ourselves and others. That honesty will allow the mental space for the more positive feelings to show up, too.”
“I believe we should allow ourselves to feel the grief and fear that we are collectively experiencing and be honest about it, both with ourselves and others”
What’s the biggest misconception about this way of thinking?
“It is that we have a large degree of control over our emotions, and by sheer hard work we can simply think different thoughts. We do have some control, but less than we think. Research shows that emotional openness and honesty is a better approach.”
So how should we go into 2021 with a positive attitude while remaining authentic to our emotions?
“Rather than trying to ‘think positively’, we should consider the small things we can do to make a difference to our wellbeing. Allowing ourselves the full range of human emotions, focusing on social connection as much as possible, and giving ourselves and others a break where we can. Showing up for our friends and communities as well as fighting for a fairer, more equitable society—these are all healthier ways to approach wellbeing than forcing any specific kind of thinking.”