“Be positive!” This is one of the most common phrases we might say to encourage each other during difficult times. When someone’s facing a challenge, no matter how small or how severe, we might also urge them to “Have hope!” or “Keep the faith!” or “Stay optimistic!” or “Look on the bright side!”

The value of such advice rests on one important assumption: that positivity is a choice, that a person facing difficult circumstances, who has become frustrated, anxious, or doubtful, still possesses the option to change their outlook and view the situation in a more positive light. When we ask someone to “look on the bright side,” we’re presupposing that they have the capacity to do so. We might even want to believe that every person has such a capacity, in every situation, but is this true? Is positivity always a choice that’s practical, workable, and psychologically viable?

It is appealing to assume that yes, positivity is always an option, no matter how bad a situation becomes. If there’s one piece of wisdom that seems worthy of life’s most difficult moments, perhaps it’s contained in a quote attributed to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”1 The implication is that if we face adversity with a positive attitude, if we cultivate gratitude for our advantages and opportunities, and if we gather the courage to take constructive action, we’ll be able to transform a bad situation into a better one.

But for every person who finds this idea rousing and empowering in one situation, there’s another person in another situation who finds the same idea irritating, unrealistic, and unwelcome. That’s because a person might not always feel they can control their response to a situation, and they might not like to be told that they can.

We needn’t look very far to see how a person’s response to a challenging circumstance might sometimes be dictated by the circumstance itself, and not left to the individual to freely choose. To consider an extreme case, what if a person is suddenly struck by lightning, or by a boulder falling from the sky? They might “respond” by dying on the spot, and there might be no elective element in such a “response.” What if a person’s mind is ravaged by a disease like Alzheimer’s? Can such a person choose to respond to this devastating affliction with “hope” and “courage,” all while unable to remember their own name, or the identities of their loved ones, let alone the meanings of words like hope and courage? Those who do manage to “stay positive” in such circumstances are inspiring, no doubt, but how could we ever say that those who fail are failing by choice? What if a person is consumed by an uncontrollable addiction, like those countless people whose lives have been ravaged by opiate painkillers initially prescribed by doctors? Can they choose to respond with perseverance and bravery in extricating themselves from an overwhelming chemical dependency? Those who succeed are inspiring, again, but how could we ever say that those who fail are simply refusing to make a choice that’s readily available to them? What if a person is struck by major depression that doesn’t improve with any available therapy? Can they choose to respond by embracing life and looking on the bright side? Or what if a person is born into poverty? Can they choose to respond with entrepreneurial innovation, lifting themselves up by their bootstraps? Maybe, but not if poverty takes away their access to nutrition, healthcare, education, and any chance of employment.

Such examples force us into the less inspiring proposition that “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can sometimes choose how we respond to them, as long as our circumstances do not take that choice away.” Of course, this modified quote is a downer because it focuses our attention on the possibility that our freedom of choice can be curtailed, whereas the original quote urges us to believe that this freedom is always ours, in full, no matter what. So how then do we distinguish a circumstance which allows us to respond in any way we please from a circumstance which forces us into a particular response, taking our choice away?

So far, we’ve considered a few of the gravest possible challenges a person might face, but what about minor adversities? Sometimes even the smallest problem can leave us feeling as though we don’t have much control over how we respond to it. In the past few days, I experienced a small problem: a low mood. I had made time to work on this essay but I couldn’t write or do much of anything else. I tried and tried but my drive just wasn’t there. One day passed, then another, then another, with no relief from the doldrums. I thought I’d attempt some positivity. “I still have a chance to write this piece,” I told myself, “And I’ve got many ideas I want to explore. This slow period won’t last forever. I’m sure I’ll feel better soon. I have so much to be thankful for: my partner, my home, my life, my morning coffee, music, the sound of birds chirping outside, my comfortable sweater. Things could be worse: I could have nothing to write. I could have no time to write. I could be struggling in so many ways that would make it impossible to write. If fate had been different, I could be fleeing bombs in a war zone, grappling with a chronic illness, or working three jobs to make ends meet, but I’m sitting here at home with the freedom, the health, and the time to put words on paper and move them around in search of insight, and that’s a great opportunity.”

Did my effort at positive self-talk do anything for me, then and there? Not really. While I had no trouble identifying things to be grateful for, I still couldn’t will myself to feel positive or grateful in that particular moment. In order to savor my blessings I needed a kind of emotional energy that I just didn’t have at the time. If someone had told me, “Cheer up, be positive!” I would have said, “I’m trying. It’s just not working.” They might have said I wasn’t trying hard enough, but I was doing everything I knew how to do. It even occurred to me that I might be putting too much pressure on myself to be positive, and that I should just accept that I was feeling lousy. So I tried that too. But this permission didn’t help. Once I accepted that I was feeling lousy, I just kept feeling lousy.

What I faced was a small problem, an insignificant blip in the big picture of my life, but nevertheless it left me feeling that I didn’t have much control over how I responded: even with an intention and an effort to “be positive,” I couldn’t bring it about. This is the nature of emotion, isn’t it? Feelings do not feel voluntary. When someone gets angry, others might say they “could have” chosen to control their anger, but the reason why they threw a tantrum was that they didn’t feel in control of their anger at the time. When someone feels anxious, others might say they “should” calm down, but they only keep feeling anxious because they don’t see any practical way to quell their worries. When someone is negative, others might say they should be more positive, but they only remain locked into negativity because the choice of positivity doesn’t seem viable to them at the time.

What is the point of ever urging someone to “Be positive!” if they might not be able to enact that advice? We can observe that there’s a best case and worst case for the helpfulness of “Be positive!” The best case is when the recipient of this encouragement already has a positive view of a situation worked out in their mind, but perhaps it has become clouded by doubt and frustration. To urge that person to “Be positive!” is to remind them to connect with an inner source of hope that they haven’t fully lost touch with. Perhaps they already want to be positive. Because they have the latent energy and readiness to do it, they would welcome a nudge to unlock it.

The worst case is when the person doesn’t consider positivity as a viable choice. They can’t convince themselves that there’s anything good or hopeful in their particular situation. To ask them to “be positive” is to burden them with unrealistic expectations. It’s to ask them to deny how they actually feel, and to expect that they should be able to change their outlook through a raw exercise of will. Perhaps they’ve already tried and failed. Now they may feel like they’re being asked to get their hopes up once again and suffer the disappointment that they view as inevitable. They’re being asked to take an emotional risk with no likelihood of a benefit — convenient for the person doing the asking, inconvenient for the person taking the risk. They may be so exhausted or depleted by a situation that “being positive” — even if it’s only an internal perspective shift — still feels like an unreasonable amount of work. When they find they can’t simply “be positive” in a flash, they may feel guilty that they’re failing to do what’s expected of them, what’s supposed to be easy. In fact, the potentially frustrating nature of “Be positive!” can lead to a backlash where a person might come to suspect optimism itself as a trite, superficial, and irrelevant proposition. All forms of positivity can be written off as “toxic positivity.”

Part of our challenge in thinking about positivity comes from the way we conceive of choices. How do choices work? Often, we think of a choice as simple, one-time behavior like flipping a switch. We could walk into a dark room and remain in the dark, or we could flip a switch to turn the lights on. If we decline to flip the switch, we’re making the “choice” to remain in the dark; if we’re willing to flip the switch, we’re making the choice to be in light. Likewise, it’s supposed to be our choice whether to be negative or positive, and we are supposed to be able to enact that choice with a simple, quick flip of a mental switch. Once we’ve decided to “be positive,” we’re supposed to be able to enjoy the benefits of positivity from there on out.

But if we’re going to use a “flipping a switch” analogy to guide our thinking about choices, we should consider what actually has to happen for us to be able to flip a switch in a physical room. Think about it: we’re only able to flip the switch because someone designed the switch — a product specifically intended for being flipped on and off. It’s got a lever that’s shaped for a person’s finger to apply an upward or downward force upon. And someone started a company to manufacture switches. In fact, many people started many companies that fabricate such devices. And then an electrician chose one and installed the switch in the room, and did all the wiring to connect the switch to the lights, and to the power source, which assumes that power is being generated somewhere and sent to our home or building via public infrastructure that takes teams of people and lots of money to maintain.

While it’s easy for us to flip a switch to turn the lights on, it’s only easy because of all the infrastructure that had been set up in advance. It’s only easy because of all the ongoing maintenance work to keep the power grid running. Our simple choice to flip the switch depends on a complex history of innovation, commerce, and planning. There are rooms that don’t have switches and if we were to try to flip the switch in such a room we would find it, of course, impossible.

When we expect someone to be able to take the advice to “Be positive!” we’re assuming they have the infrastructure that would allow them enact this choice as easily as flipping a switch. What is that infrastructure? It’s a whole set of mental and emotional skills. The person has to be able to observe their negative thoughts and identify them as such. The person has to be able to exercise creativity in generating positive alternatives. They need to have enough control over their attention that they are able to steer it away from the negative ideas and towards the positive ones. They need to be skilled enough at managing frustration that they can fail at this endeavor multiple times and yet not give up. They need to have enough energy and composure to persist in looking for solutions. They need to be connected enough with their past that they can draw lessons from it and apply those lessons now in the present. They need to be convinced of the value of positivity, seeing it as a worthwhile thing to pursue. In short, they need a kind of cognitive and emotional athleticism. They need to be “in shape” or “fit” enough to pull off all these moves.

Now hook that person up to a constant stream of updates and alerts from social media. Bombard them with news reports featuring the disorder and dysfunction of global affairs. Place them in a competitive society that chases wealth, power, and fame. Involve them in corrupt religious institutions. Surround them with advertising that triggers fear and greed. Subject them to trauma and loss. Subject them to the daunting complexity of the human mind with its infinite capacity for confusion, misconception, and noise. Fill their life with injured people seeking relief from pain in circuitous ways. Place them in an extractive and exploitative economic system, saddle them with debt, and then reveal to them that their species is bringing catastrophe upon itself. Now see if they’re going to be able to be positive on command.

But this essay is not here to say that positivity is impossible. On the contrary, this essay is here to say that positivity will seem more accessible if we understand why it is sometimes so difficult. The “flipping a switch” analogy makes us expect that positivity should be simple and effortless to enact. We become discouraged when we find that this is not the case. But we can avoid this discouragement and gain a better chance at achieving positivity if we abandon the “flipping a switch” analogy and take a more subtle view of what “choosing” positivity might actually entail.

Whenever we feel that positivity is not feasible or workable, the first thing we should do is to suspend judgment. We should keep an open mind. We should hold off on assuming that positivity is not an option, because when we assume we don’t have an option, we take that option away. While we may find we can’t control all aspects of our response to an external circumstance, we can try to discover what aspects are still within our control. What power are we already exercising? What choices have we already made and forgotten? In what ways are we already being positive? If we’d like to be more positive, there may be small choices that move us further in that direction, barring a spontaneous transformation into gung-ho enthusiasm and cheer. This would lead to a third version of our quote, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can choose to discover what control we possess in responding to those circumstances.”

When we can’t seem to control our initial response to a situation, often we can still control our second-order response — that’s to say, our response to our response. Emotions have a way of doubling themselves. Something makes us angry, and then we feel angry that we were made to be angry. Something makes us anxious, then the feeling of anxiety suggests to us that we’re in danger, which makes us more anxious. Something makes us depressed, then we become depressed that we’re spending so much time feeling depressed. Usually, we do have control over this second-order response. In my case, when I was feeling down the other day and I couldn’t simply “be positive,” I realized that I could at least choose not to scold myself for wasting time. While this choice didn’t make me feel better immediately, it prevented my situation from getting worse, and later on, I felt positive about the little bit of control I had exercised. We don’t always have to be upbeat about the thing that’s not working, but maybe we can find a way to be upbeat about our ability to cope with it or learn from it or laugh at it.

The second thing we can remember when positivity seems unworkable is that we shouldn’t expect our efforts at positivity to succeed the first time around, or the second, or even the third. Sometimes, positivity really is as easy as “flipping a switch” but sometimes it’s as hard as installing the switch and all the associated wiring. But the analogy breaks down here because we don’t need to finish a complex and costly “installation” before we can benefit from positivity. Any little progress we make towards a constructive outlook can help us. Trying out bits and pieces of an alternate perspective is essentially free to do. If it doesn’t help us, we haven’t lost much, but if it does, we might have gained much more than we spent. We should see positivity as a series of small choices that reinforce each other over time, and we should practice making such choices in low-stakes situations.

The third thing to remember is that controlling our response to a circumstance needn’t come by force. If we’d like to be positive, we needn’t push ourselves to think positive thoughts. We needn’t browbeat ourselves into adopting an artificially cheery and bubbly demeanor. Positivity is not a personality type; it doesn’t mean being a cheerleader. It needn’t mean shouting “Woo-hoo!” (though it can). Actually, the most reliable path to positivity is by cultivating a passive detachment from our thoughts, just as we do when we meditate. When we develop the ability to observe our negative thoughts from a distance, gradually letting them dissipate, we can then achieve some open, empty space in the mind, which allows for simpler, quieter, subtler positive thoughts to be noticed. To be positive, we can start by cultivating inner quiet, calm, and equanimity.

But why positivity? Why should we even pursue it? What would make someone who’s feeling very negative want to embark on a path toward positivity in the first place? Wouldn’t they need to already have a storehouse of positivity to even want to do this?

My concept of positivity changed after I experienced a frightening health event in 2018. My physician diagnosed it by exclusion as a panic attack, and he did me a big favor in not rushing me off to a psychiatrist for medication. He suggested I take a class on mindfulness and stress management.

When I first met my instructor, she was wearing a white medical gown and mask. With all the authority of an experienced medical practitioner – she was a critical care nurse – she told me that I needed to be more positive for the sake of my health. Her argument was that negativity causes stress, and unmanaged stress has damaging physical and psychological effects. While negativity hadn’t necessarily caused my attack, it may have made me more susceptible to having one; positivity wouldn’t necessarily prevent another one, but it would reduce the chances. Essentially, this nurse wrote me a prescription for optimism.

If I had received such a prescription at any earlier time in my life, albeit one delivered with friendliness and compassion, I would have responded with my normal philosophical combativeness, jumping at the opportunity for questioning and debate. I would have wanted to get into definitions: What does optimism mean? What does pessimism mean? What framework can we use to evaluate one perspective as superior to another? What basis is there to ever tell another individual what outlook they should hold? But I was so desperate to avoid another panic attack that I thought, “I’ll try anything.” It just didn’t seem to be in my interest to argue. This prescription came at a time when I was fully receptive and ready to follow it closely.

Here are three ways my view of positivity changed as a result of the panic attack, the prescription, and my efforts to follow the prescription in the six years since. First, I used to think positivity was wasteful because it meant investing one’s energy in hopes and dreams and rosy visions that wouldn’t pan out. But I came to think that positivity is actually an efficient, even a “cost-effective” approach to life, because it means not spending more energy on gloominess and doubt than one actually needs to. It means not burdening oneself with stressful expectations of negative outcomes that may not come to pass. It’s a way of saving energy.

Second, I used to think that positivity was intellectually sloppy and dishonest, because it meant ignoring negative truths and gullibly trusting one’s hopes over reason. But I came to think that positivity can actually promote clear thinking because it promotes calm, and the calmer we are, the more mentally agile, perceptive, and creative we can be.

Third, I used to think that positivity would be difficult to practice as it would involve a continuous struggle to tune out the bad news that would otherwise push a person to become negative. But I came to think that positivity is easy, once you get the hang of it, because it means not having to constantly struggle with the expectation of misfortune. I came to think that optimists are just having an easier time at life than pessimists. It’s not fair! Optimists aren’t doing more work – they’re doing less – but they get more of a reward.

What metric should we use to evaluate one perspective over another? If we’re never going to be able to say that one perspective is right and the other wrong, one is true and the other false, why not at least chose the one that’s better for our health? This struck me as radical idea at the time, and it still does.

We have seen many reasons why a person might not feel they can “be positive” in a particular situation. We have understood why the suggestion to “be positive” might not be received well, causing frustration, guilt, or anger. Any time we tell another individual what outlook to choose, we’re making a pushy, even intrusive gesture. But I’m grateful that I was pushed, even intruded upon. I know from my own experience that a directive to be positive, coming at the right time, can transform a person’s life for the better. So where does this leave us? Should we all shut up about positivity to avoid stepping on each other’s toes? Should we refrain from giving any advice that might backfire or be seen as presumptuous? Or should we take the risk, knowing that overall, the benefits of encouraging each other towards positivity are greater than the drawbacks? I conclude in favor of the benefits. So here goes, dear reader: Be positive! ■

  1. The quote, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them,” can be found in Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell, 1995, Page 10, in a section titled “Events Don’t Hurt Us, But Our Views of Them Can.” Epictetus himself did not leave any known writings. Lebell’s book is an interpretation, not a literal translation, of ideas captured by Epictetus’s pupil Arrian of Nicomedia. ↩︎

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