Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

“It’s Okay to be Sad” – The tyranny of positivity

The importance of positivity for our eventual success and general happiness is clear everywhere you look. With mental health and wellbeing being a topic at the forefront of conversation in recent years perhaps it’s no surprise. Statistically speaking we appear to be in the crux of a mental health crisis, particularly in terms of young people (Kadison and DiGeronimo, 2004). However in acknowledging mental health as a problem we seem to have opened Pandora’s Box for quick-fix solutions.

Recently there appears to be more life-coaches and self-help books, more mantras and more mottos then anyone could ever hope to processes. Positivity has become big business! Browsing through shops and social media pages you cannot help but be bombarded with hollow phrases telling us that it’s imperative we stop ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ and learn how to ‘dance in the rain.’ However in a recent Ted Talk, Raymond Tang (2018) explained that the more books he read the more stressed and anxious he became. He compares the experience to feeding his brain with junk food and becoming “mentally-obese”. Ironically he, himself, is plugging a version of positive mantras. The popularity of positive psychology has led to a concern for the “tyranny of the positive attitude,” (Held, 2002 & 2004) a fear that in drilling home the need to be positive we are unwittingly adding insult to injury for those who are struggling. Well-meaning intentions to alleviate negativity by consistently heralding positivity actually perpetuates feelings of inadequacy and failure. So when I saw the sign in the piazza at Warwick University proclaiming that it’s “Okay to be sad,” I wondered is this a refreshing, helpful move in the right direction?

The sign was particularly poignant for me as I have struggled reconciling my experience of University with the hype that surrounds it. University is often proclaimed as the greatest, most sociable, most enjoyable experience of your life! And (in my experience) it is extremely difficult to get people to admit that the reality does not always live up to this perfect ideal. Therefore if you are unfortunate enough to be homesick or lonely for even a second it is hard not to feel like there’s something wrong with you. That you’ve failed in some way. Clearly perfect positivity 24/7 is unobtainable, but is the answer to drowning in positivity to admit and justify our sadness? It seemed almost comical to me that it could be.

I am inclined to think that neither approach, passively accepting the negative nor blindly clinging to the positive, can successfully impact our mental wellbeing. Golwitzer (1999) helpfully illustrates the importance of distinguishing goal intentions from implementation intentions. Ajzen’s (1980) theory of planned action suggests that by committing oneself to goal intentions – such as the goal to be positive – we are obligated to realise that goal in our behaviour. It is no surprise then that if our behaviour conflicts with our goal we might feel stressed, anxious or generally negative about ourselves. Golwitzer (1999) argues that the goal itself is not enough, we need implementation intentions which specify what, when and how we will respond in certain situations in order to achieve our goal intentions. Perhaps then, the real problem with our insistence on positivity (or conversely insisting that sadness is 'okay'), is that we are propagating goal intentions without specifing the relevant implementation intentions which would enable us to achieve such goals. The slogans advertise what is desirable. They highlight the goal, but they fail to meaningfully commit us to the means. 

If positive thinking is the key to success then I need to know how I can become more positive not be told how crucial something is that I don’t have or am already finding difficult. It is all well and good holding up a magic key to happiness but it’s not very useful if I don’t know how to get that key for myself.  

Mottos and mantras are ever-popular, and I would argue the general push for positivity underscores the prevalence of mental-health issues in today’s society. However while we are desperate for solutions I think that our unwavering commitment goal intentions without clear implementation techniques is doomed to failure, in fact it may even exaggerate the problem. We need to better equip people with specific behavioural strategies rather than plying them with goals they don’t know how to pursue. For example: when I am sad I will phone a friend in order to help me focus on the positives. Not: when I am sad I must be positive.

Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behaviour.
Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist54(7), 493.

Held, B. S. (2002).The tyranny of the positive attitude in America: Observation and speculation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 965-991.

Held, B. S. (2004). The negative side of positive psychology. Journal of humanistic psychology44(1), 9-46.

Kadison, R., & DiGeronimo, T. F. (2004). College of the overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. Jossey-Bass.

Tang, R., (2018, February). Raymond Tang: Be humble and other lessons from the philosophy of water [Video file]. Retrieved from

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