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Why You DON’T Need to Stay Positive

Young boy select between positive and negative expressionsMy old doctor’s office handed out a brochure called 7 Tips for Healthy Living. One of those tips was “Keep a positive mental outlook.”

I like that they linked physical and emotional health, but I’m not sure they got the details quite right.

We’ve all heard of people who bring joy to everyone around them with their sunny outlook, yet succumb to cancer in the prime of their lives.

And there’s also the cliche about mean old people who are “too ornery to die.” They’re not positive at all, but they’re healthy as horses.

On both sides of the positivity scale, there are too many examples to call these exceptions.

But let’s say we want to practice having a positive mental outlook … just in case it could have a real impact on our health.

What does it look like?

I guess it means when you miss the bus, instead of cursing and stamping your feet, you smile and say, “I’m sure another one will be along in 30 short minutes!”

Or maybe even, “Fantastic! This gives me a chance to test the hypothesis that being cold makes you stronger.'”

Just one question: How does lying to yourself like that make you healthier?

Correlation vs. Causation

While there may be a link between a positive outlook and good health, nobody knows for sure that one causes the other.

Maybe a positive disposition is carried on the same gene as longevity.

Or maybe being healthy makes you feel positive, not the other way around.

So should we try to be as upbeat as possible in order to improve our health? Not if logic matters.

Just because something sounds simple and is easy to say (e.g., “Happy people live longer”) doesn’t mean it’s true. While research is important, the analysis and significance of results is often misinterpreted by the media. Not to mention the researchers themselves in some cases.

I happen to buy the evidence suggesting a link between a [genuine] positive outlook and living longer.

But for any emotional disposition, including a positive one, to be genuine, it must be organic-like and spontaneous-ish. You can’t build a positive outlook in a workshop or bake it in an oven. Saying, wishing, or wanting it doesn’t make it so.

But it’s okay. Just be you. 

Because there’s plenty of research indicating an actual causal  relationship between attempting to be something other than what you are, and physiological STRESS. 

That means trying to be positive when you’re not feeling that way may be very bad for you. We know this with more certainty than we know why happy people live longer.

Maybe my doctor’s brochure should have read,  “Let yourself have the feelings you have, not just the ones you wish you had. You’re less likely to die from stress.”

I like that better. It’s easier to do than ignoring upsets and disappointments. 

Darn. I should have memorized the other six tips.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."

4 Responses to "Why You DON’T Need to Stay Positive"

  • Peggy Gibbs
    March 5, 2017 - 8:52 am Reply

    Honesty seems, always, to be the best reaction to an individual’s life experience. Good or bad. Good post Tina, thanks.

  • Tina Gilbertson
    March 5, 2017 - 10:04 am Reply

    Thank you for taking the time to leave your feedback, Peggy. I appreciate it.

  • mom2max0812
    March 5, 2017 - 2:08 pm Reply

    Yes, Great Post Tina! When I was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I would come across articles saying, eat this, eat that, blueberries can keep cancer away, I was dumbfounded that I ate blueberries all the time, in fact eat all kinds of healthy foods and guess what, it just happened that I still got cancer! Thank you for all your posts that let me know that my feelings are my feelings and nothing more or less.

  • Snowburst
    March 6, 2017 - 1:21 am Reply

    momtomax0812: I am so sorry you’re having to deal with cancer. I wish you wellness along the way.

    I agree with you 100%, Tina. When I live with a brain that is stuck in depression with a passion and failing memory, it’s hard to stay positive, or by now, even get positive. Like I did yesterday, I went to visit my daughter and grandson at their new house. Whenever I am around them, I put on a persona of some level of happiness, at least what I think would be appropriate. If I were to let myself be the “real me” around them, they probably would not want me around them. And I wouldn’t blame them about that, either. My mind just isn’t right, and that’s just the fact of the matter. And just like putting extra makeup over a blemish, I need to do that to appear relatively normal. And I am actually grateful at least in some ways, to be by myself at this stage of my life. Even though, other than occasional visits with my daughter and grandson, I am pretty much ousted from the rest of the family, at the same time, I am free to just be myself and that is pretty weird sometimes. I am very grateful that cats cannot speak English!! If I try to force myself to stay positive too much, it just really pisses me off inside and I wind up sabotaging myself. It’s a balancing act for me.

    I love that term. It’s about the only thing I remember about statistics class. And I remind myself of it frequently, as it is so easy to make erroneous assumptive judgments. “Correlation does not imply causation”. In other words, “just because it looks like so, doesn’t make it so”. (((( hugz )))).

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