Updated: Feb 19, 2020
"Think positive" is often much easier said than done.
Instead of always thinking positive, we can practice acceptance of our emotions and feelings in all situations, especially the more uncomfortable ones. It teaches us how to truly become happy and content in the long run.
Scientists have found a number of health benefits of accepting our feelings as they are.
Many of us have heard the phrase "think positive".
But what if in some situations it is very difficult to be positive? What if we just can't switch our emotions, and all of a sudden go from being angry, or sad to being positive instead?
Does that mean that there's something we are missing? Are we different for not being able to switch our mood and turn it completely around all of a sudden, which every one else keeps making sound so easy?
No, there's definitely nothing wrong with us.
In fact, "think positive" is MUCH easier said than done, especially in difficult situations. Therefore, it is not weird at all to get irritated of hearing "think positive" phrase when we're worked up about something.
Although positive thinking is proven to increase our productivity, success and overall happiness, there are other, more effective ways to get there, than dismissing our negative feelings and forcing ourselves to think positively all the time.
Why is the "think positive" attitude not the most effective way to be happy in the long-run?
By believing that we should always only think positively, we immediately reject other emotions, that may be very important to feel in difficult or uncomfortable situations.
While by rejecting our emotions we may distance ourselves from a problem and even manage to find a way to feel good in a difficult situation, it would only be a temporary solution, or a "quick fix".
We would just ignore the situation and the ways we feel about it at the moment. But the problem would still remain, either with our awareness or without it.
For example, after a break up, we may ignore how we feel and ensure to make our schedules fully booked for a few weeks in advance. We avoid feeling anything but happy at all costs and try to constantly be with other people, maybe even engaging in less healthy activities. We just try to forget it all.
After a while, it may feel as though we are over the break up and try to move on. But we might even move on too fast.
But suppressed feelings and emotions that we haven't properly processed tend to manifest in some way sooner or later. Some unresolved problems come up to the surface in very subtle ways, which may even cause long-term stress for our bodies. This happens when we don't deal with our feelings over long periods of time (1) .
In this example, we may keep having the same relationship problems with new partners and we wouldn't understand what's wrong since we never reflect upon our feelings or let ourselves accept the more uncomfortable feelings in the first place.
What should we do instead?
Instead of rejecting our emotions and "thinking positive" in even difficult situations, it is better to acknowledge and accept how we are feeling at the moment.
By bringing our full awareness into the moment and how we are feeling, we can understand the situation, our thoughts and emotions about it. We can even decide how we want to deal with it in a way that's best for us.
Allowing ourselves to fully feel what we feel at the moment and observing our feelings in a non-judgemental way, helps us to truly move on later. We are less likely to have underlying thoughts, or feelings that would uncontrollably trigger our reactions in certain situations in the future. Having dealt with a problem will also minimize the risk for it manifesting in long term stress on our body.
For more information about stress effects on our body and how to manage it, read my blog post about stress management.
In the earlier example, we can also choose to accept that we are feeling very upset/disappointed/angry/lonely, or whatever other feelings we may have about the break up.
We could then take our time to fully be with our feelings and do the things we feel like our body needs at the moment- be it listening to sad songs, journaling, going for walks, talking about it with our friends, eating lots of chocolate, or anything else we are in the mood for. The important thing is to feel all the feelings and accept them as they are for as long as it takes.
Once we've accepted all our feelings and emotions, we are more likely to find ourselves feeling happy and free one day. And from then on, it becomes much easier to move on as we have taken our time to truly feel and reflect upon the situation.
We become less likely to take the underlying feelings from previous experiences into our future.
Instead, we become in charge of our own reactions and the ways we deal with them and, ultimately, create our own happiness.
Accepting situations and our own emotions as they are, in a non-judgemental way, has many benefits.
One study found that the participants who had higher self-acceptance, mindfully accepting their emotions and situations in life, also showed to have higher self-esteem (2).
Another study took similar findings even further, showing that depression decreased and self-esteem increased in participants who accepted situations and their emotions mindfully, in a non-judgemental way (3).
A study about depression found that depressed individuals were less acceptant to their emotions and circumstances, compared to healthy participants. This shows that dealing with our emotions and accepting them, rather than suppressing them, can decrease the risk of being depressed (4).
Only when we have accepted our emotions and saw them from a neutral, non-judgemental way, we can move on and be happy.
After we have accepted our situation, we can practice gratitude to see the positive in it. Read my blog post about gratitude and ways to practice it for more information. Here's where the "think positive" becomes very effective in terms of our happiness.
Here's an example exercise of how to practice acceptance of the present moment:
1. State your experience/emotions/situation without judgement and then accept your feelings.
For example, by simply stating "I am feeling upset and stressed about my large workload" acknowledges your feelings and brings them out to the surface. Follow up with "It's okay for me to feel this way", accepting your situation as it is at this very moment.
2. Become aware of your physical experience in this moment.
Take a few deep breaths. With each outbreath, imagine that all the tension and emotions are released. With each inbreath, imagine the feeling of calm and peacefulness entering your body.
3. Now rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 how much acceptance you feel toward your situation.
Try to increase it by 1 point. And then as many more points as you possibly can.
Then imagine how you would feel if you accepted the situation to 10 points. What would be required for you to reach that level of acceptance?
4. Try this exercise several times a day.
Especially when you find yourself in less pleasant situations, or circumstances.
Try this exercise today with any kind of situation. Practice it as many times a day as you would like to. It can be a new fun challenge for the upcoming new year!
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Patel, Jainish & Patel, Prittesh. (2019). Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research. 1. 16-21. 10.14302/issn.2574-612X.ijpr-18-2564.
2. Thompson, B.L. & Waltz, J.A. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther (2008) 26: 119. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-007-0059-0
3. Michalak, J., Teismann, T., Heidenreich, T., Ströhle, G., & Vocks, S. (2011). Buffering low self-esteem: The effect of mindful acceptance on the relationship between self-esteem and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(5), 751–754. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2010.11.029
4. Pastuszak, A., Beblo, Driessen, Betkowska-Korpala, Starowicz-Filip, & Gierowski. (2014). EPA-1062 – Acceptance and suppression of negative and positive emotions in patients with depressive disorders. European Psychiatry, 29(S1), 1–1. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0924-9338(14)78346-4