Excessive Positivity can be Pathological
The psychological sciences have typically been associated with the diagnosis and treatment and mental dysfunctions. A quote, often attributed to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, states that psychology’s main goal is to “replace neurotic misery with ordinary unhappiness.” This ironically depressing statement about the field of psychology highlights an uneasy truth about the discipline. The larger part of the discipline’s history has been about understanding the maladies of the human mind, diagnosing patients, and suggesting interventions that treat individuals suffering from them. That changed, however, with the introduction of positive psychology more than two decades ago.
Positive psychology is focused on psychological factors and individual traits that promote – rather than those that inhibit. Proponents argue that the absence of mental health problems does not mean that the person is thriving or flourishing . To use a health analogy, the absence of disease does not mean that one may be at peak health. An individual may not be ill but could benefit from say, a healthier diet, more regular exercise and leisurely time, or fewer experiences of stress from work. The positive psychology movement resulted in the development of a classification of character virtues and strengths – what would sometimes be referred to as the opposite of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) manual . Studies were conducted on psychological factors that promote happiness and meaningful life experiences. For instance, numerous studies showed the benefits of ‘learned optimism’ and how this can be beneficial for our well-being . Other studies highlighted the importance of compassion, particularly when it is cultivated as part of mindfulness meditation practice .
The encouraging results have led to countless suggestions for how to cultivate happiness and meaning in one’s life – but unfortunately, to a point where positive psychology’s true mission has become somewhat obscured or misinterpreted. Psychologists working in this domain will be quick to point out that the goal of positive psychology is not to ensure ‘happiness at all costs.’ If anything, the research is clear that valuing happiness and making it a goal is, ironically one way to be unhappy . There have been concerns about the sharing of pop psychology claims touting the benefits of staying happy and contented all the time. This ‘toxic positivity’ is defined by one mental health service as, “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations…[which] results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience .”
It is important to note that positive psychology seeks to address the imbalance in the psychological sciences – to highlight that a holistically healthy experience means that one is both free from mental health issues and having the opportunities, skills, and strengths for a well-lived life. As such, the disease-based model for mental health is necessary (although not without its limitations) for a complete understanding of the human condition. It is perhaps also an irony that a more authentic approach to understanding and putting positive psychology’s findings to effective use relies also on an understanding of the dangers of excessive positivity. What happens when we are excessively optimistic or when we are expected to be compassionate to all the time?
Seminal studies on trait and learned optimism paved the way for the development of positive psychology as a standalone domain within the psychological sciences. Being optimistic is beneficial for one’s physical and psychological well-being; one review indicating that optimists tended to report higher-quality health outcomes than pessimists . Yet, there are also studies showing how being excessively optimistic can have a negative influence – for instance, on our decisions. One study showed that excessive optimism toward a business’ projected benefits was associated with an escalation of commitment even towards failing projects . That is, being exceedingly optimistic can cause us to stick to decisions that may be harmful or have been shown to have poor returns. The optimism bias explains what some economists refer to as the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy. This fallacy results in the continuous commitment to a failing course of action, despite the presence of better alternatives. Indeed, one study showed that inventors’ elevated level of optimism explained why inventors were more likely to commit the sunk-cost fallacy. These inventors continued spending money on their inventions – as much as 166% more than pessimists, despite strong advice to stop further expenditures . Finally, one study found that college students were likely to underestimate their health risks relative to that of their peers. Optimism bias, instances like these, may serve as a means to decrease worry – but this ultimately undermined behaviours that promoted better health . The bias, it seems, discourages us from engaging in health-promoting behaviours since it causes us to think that health complications will not affect us.
Compassion is considered a positive emotional experienced stemming from the concern for another’s suffering. This emotion motivates intentions to alleviate the suffering of another . While there is considerable research on the benefits of cultivating compassion (say, through compassion and mindfulness meditation), there is also a line of research illustrating the effects of excessive compassion. Compassion fatigue is defined as, “the final result of a progressive and cumulative process that is caused by prolonged, continuous, and intense contact with patients, the use of self, and exposure to stress” . Compassion fatigue is often examined within the context of caregiving professions, so it comes as no surprise that these studies often sample medical and healthcare practitioners. A meta-review of studies of healthcare workers showed that compassion fatigue was associated with a host of physical ailments (exhaustion, sleep disturbances, compromised immunity), behavioural changes (increased alcohol intake, strained personal relationships, irritability) as well as psychological costs such as diminished sympathy and empathy and poorer self-image . Caring for others takes a toll on the caregiver. There is only so much of ourselves that we can give to others before we suffer the ill-effects of compassion fatigue. These finding also lead to propositions that a healthy, work environment, consisting of supportive colleagues and leaders can serve to lower the risk of compassion fatigue. In one study of oncology nurses, a healthy work environment, characterized by team cohesiveness and culture of teamwork, helped reduce reports of compassion fatigue and burnout .
Approaching Positive Psychology and Its Findings in a Balanced Manner
The research highlighting the perils of excessive optimism and compassion is a sobering, but necessary antidote to broad and grandiose claims about their universal benefits of these. More generally, the findings here suggest that a practical approach to understanding and appreciating positive psychology’s findings is to temper its upsides with its downsides. A meaningful and happy life may be one in which we are generally optimistic about our lives and compassionate towards others – but not one in which we are frequently, or excessively so.