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Toxic positivity is like too many scoops of ice cream

If you get riled by people telling you to think positive when you are struggling with difficult things in your life – take heart – such a forced positivity can be unhelpful, even toxic to our wellbeing.

In sport psychology and leadership development programmes we learn about affirmations and positive thoughts. So we might well think we are helping ourselves and our neighbours with a well-intentioned,

“It will all work out” “You just need to look on the bright side” “Cheer up, it isn’t that bad.”

But a recent article in the Washington Post highlights the problems with going overboard with a positive spin on everything. Take Natalie Dattilo, a Health Psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Boston. Her common-sense advice is that piling on the platitudes and trying to be positive is a bit like having a few too many scoops of ice cream –it makes you feel better to a while and then after that makes you sick.

Or, Dattilo compares being overly positive to shoving ice-cream in a person’s face when they don’t feel like having ice-cream.

Humans avoid pain and seek pleasure

It is, of course, quite normal for human beings to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If our tooth hurts, going to the dentist to stop the pain is helpful. But avoiding difficult feelings becomes tricky when it comes to our inner workings. The elaborate ways we turn away from and avoid difficult emotions can get us into trouble that can wind up worse than the emotions from which we were running.

Research tells us that there are valid alternatives to trying endlessly to change the way you think. There are more effective approaches than metaphorically smothering someone in ‘ice-cream’ affirmations and positive thoughts. Learning how to develop mindful behaviours and taking steps towards living a value-driven life is proven to improve wellbeing, mental health and performance – in sport and leadership.

How can I learn mindfulness?

Developing mindful behaviours doesn’t have to involve sitting in a darkened room for hours. It can be as simple as:

1. Pay attention – for example, as a tennis player, when you pick up the ball make a special effort to pay attention to the texture of the ball in your hand; as a leader, pay attention to the faces of the team around you.

2. Notice – for example, when your mind wanders in a team meeting or a game, or you are hooked by the current difficult situation, simply notice where your thoughts have drifted to.

3. Choose and return – choose to bring your attention, and return back to the present moment, using, for example your breath or another sensation in your body.

4. Be aware and accept – try to observe and accept the difficult or unhelpful feelings and sensation, like a curious scientist, without judgement.

So next time a situation is tough and you feel like you have to be OK and repeat the mantra of positivity, remember that too many scoops ice-cream can be detrimental – instead practice the skills of mindfulness to stay open to the difficult situation you face.

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