The tyranny of positivity: A Harvard psychologist details our unhealthy obsession with happiness

Harvard Medical School
Over a year ago

Some days it can feel like we’re living inside an overly sincere Hallmark card. The dominant messaging in western societies is: Be happy. Don’t worry. It will be alright. Just reach for happiness. Take your destiny into your own hands. The people close to you, to whom you can tell your worries, they smile and a speech bubble floats from their mouth saying: ‘Think positive!’ Somewhere, a Disney bird is chirping.

Harvard psychologist Susan David doesn’t trust this messaging, and worries how it is shaping us and our children. She first experienced the detriment of forced positivity when she was 16 years old and her father was diagnosed with cancer. Friends and relatives came to console the family, and the large-scale sentiment was that if the family just believed, he would be okay. In hindsight, David sees how damaging this was as it impacted on her family’s ability to be present, to spend authentic time together and embrace reality, as they were distracted by their hope for a cure on the horizon instead.

David experienced it a second tragic time through a friend of hers who was recently diagnosed with and died of stage-four breast cancer. This friend described her own experience of suffering with cancer as amplified by what she called ‘the tyranny of positivity’. This woman had been to support group meetings, and she knew first-hand that positive thinking did not save the women who did not return to group each week.

Happiness has become an expectation, but David notes that we can't forget that there is no one state of being that a person is entitled to, as she puts it: life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. Humans must develop the skills and capacity to deal with difficult times, not sweep it aside as a glitch in the smooth delivery of constant happiness. Sadness, heartbreak, and grief aren’t signs of weakness, and pretending these "uglier" emotions don’t exist only hinders our authentic existence and experience of life. It lowers our resilience to future difficulties as well.

Happiness is not the goal, she says. If you build your life around things that you intrinsically value, happiness will be a beautiful byproduct of that focus.

Susan David's most recent book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Bonus pack is available here.