Just stay positive. Chin up. It’ll all be over soon. Of course, it will all be over soon – as our lockdown slowly bows out, and as we’re given the long-awaited green light to start enjoying outdoor activities again. The sight of a limestone climb, woodland trail, or Cornish surf have no doubt been filling your mind, as you think of the obstacles you’ve had to get through, and the mantra: Just stay positive.
But what does it mean to ‘be positive’ when you don’t feel like it? A Harvard Business School paper called, ‘It’s OK Not to Be OK’ suggested that forced positive thinking might do more harm than good.
The problem with forced positivity
According to the study, if we ignore our daily stresses by forcing a state of happiness, we send a message to our brain that the emotion we’re trying to ignore is somehow bad.
It was hard enough trying to remain composed and positive during isolation. There’s a difference between telling yourself everything's OK – and it actually being OK.
Many of us are familiar with Ernest Shackleton’s famous quote, ‘By endurance we conquer’. In life, as in our outdoor pursuits, endurance is a much healthier way to deal with challenges than bloated positivity. The review states that making peace with negative emotions is a more effective antidote. Like Shackleton, faced with endless uncertainties in the most extreme conditions, he always confronted what lay ahead rather than run from it.
Where it comes from
Nothing worth doing in life comes easily. Over the last few years, we’ve been fed the idea that negativity is destructive; that being assertive is bad, and that we should assume that we're perfect just as we are. The problem here is that it can stop us from facing up to our insecurities, and prevents any personal growth.
In part, we can lay the blame on social media (where everything appears to be all hunky-dorey) and on societal expectations. It’s a carousel of good things happening to other people. And we tend to measure ourselves by their success. If we project a positive life online too, we hope it can impact our reality. When instead it only confirms what we already know: That we’re not so perfect after all.
How to identify the problem
Start trusting more in your gut, and open up to some of those insecurities. By doing so, you can find a well of contentment and reassurance. A good method is by applying the ‘checking’ technique during a brief meditation session. This is the act of focusing on what's making you unhappy at that moment: be it work, your partner, low fitness, an injury or whatever comes to mind. Rather than hiding from the fear, you do the opposite. Visualise the issue until it becomes rational (and even dull). By honing your ability to confront what’s bogging you down, you're able to make peace with it.
This is far more effective than running away from your fears. Rather than saying, “everything’s going to be fine,” you’re realising, “Nope, not everything is OK, and I’m OK with that.” It’s a useful tool to bring with you in every facet of life. Take your outdoor pursuits: many times, we might observe a challenge and immediately believe it’s an impossible, larger-than-life task. That pang in your gut doesn’t need to be a bad feeling; it can be your body asking you to pay attention.
So, as we begin our return to normalcy and as all the foreign anxieties strike us during this uncomfortable transition period, try to ask questions of yourself. Pushing on isn’t the result of staying positive. That’s called bearing.
Pushing on requires an awareness of what we’re pushing against. So stare that metaphorical mountain in the eye, paddle out to the choppy, harsh waves, and spend a quiet moment ahead of time. Avoid muttering, lying to yourself, that everything is OK. Why should it be? Where’s the fun in that?
And finally, like Shackleton himself, go forward and conquer.