Take a Step Back from Positive Thinking — stop labeling your Life Experiences

Is being positive all the time actually a bad thing? It sounds like a straightforward question with a simple answer: No. Shouldn’t everyone strive to be positive in their lives? This idea of constant positivity is ingrained in our culture—whenever something happens that you consider to be “bad,” you automatically make attempts to rationalize the experience with positive thinking. 

A woman is standing in front of a body of water with her arms open, and above her is the text "Happy & positive 100% of the time"
The message of “being positive” is constantly reiterated in all forms of media to maintain good mental health. But what do mental health professionals have to say about always being positive? Image courtesy of YouTube.

Many sources suggest that “keeping a positive attitude” is a basic way to relieve stress. However, other scholars such as Srikumar Rao—TED speaker, author, and former professor—argue that being positive all the time can, in fact, be a bad thing. Let’s dive into his thinking. 

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look into:

  • How we tend to put a label on all experiences in our lives
  • A strategy, other than positive thinking, that can be used to overcome negative experiences

In his article “Why Positive Thinking Is Bad For You,” Rao criticizes our tendency to label all of our experiences in life as “good” or “bad.” Most of the time we label experiences as bad, such as missing the bus to work, having a fallout with a long time friend, etc., and then use positive thinking as a way to rationalize these bad experiences. 

Rao paints a picture of this rationalization of bad experiences in these couple sentences:

“Can you recall instances of something that you initially thought was a bad thing that turned out to be not so bad after all or perhaps even a spectacularly good thing? Like the time you just missed a train and had to wait a whole hour for the next one and it was horrible except that your neighbor also missed it so you talked for the first time and a beautiful friendship developed.”

The word "rationalize" is written in big lettering over and over again
Because something we think is good happened out of a bad situation, we rationalize (with positive thinking) that it was meant to be. Image courtesy of Medium.

Rao suggests that there’s no need to automatically label our experiences as “good” and “bad” in the first place. He says that we all have been conditioned to believe that missing a train, getting a divorce, losing our house, and other happenings in our lives are “bad.” 

His solution to overcoming bad situations is to simply not label them; to “take them as a given” like a civil engineer would when surveying a landscape. This way of thought calls upon us to look at all experiences, good or bad, as things to be addressed—we can’t control the materials we’ve been given to construct our building, but we must use them anyways. 

According to Rao, learning to not label situations is the key to ultimate success. The saying “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade” involves the stress of dealing with a bad experience (the lemons) and turning it into something sweeter (lemonade). 

A landscape engineer is using a tool to survey the landscpae
Just like engineers, Rao says that we must survey and adapt to the landscape in front of us. Image courtesy of Gateway. 

Rao wants us all to take a step back from this way of thinking, which involves being positive all the time—he suggests that we be prepared to adapt to any situation that is thrown our way, rather than use positive thinking as a way to rationalize unfavorable situations. 

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