The tyranny of positive thinking: why it has to end

positive thinking

Of course, it is an exaggeration to talk about a tyranny of positive thinking. But there is a danger, especially in the workplace of over-emphasising the positive, to the exclusion of dissenting or negative voices. Here is why.

What tyranny of positive thinking?

As a coach concerned with helping people advance their personal and professional development, believe me, I am steeped in positive psychology.

I have studied Masters level courses in positive organisational coaching, applied positive psychology and the psychology of peak performance.

I have studied the evidence base for the most important principles of positive psychology and I don’t doubt the value of applying these principles to our lives and careers.

In fact, positive psychology informs much of the personal and professional development work that I do – with others and on myself.

But, and I know you could hear this ‘but’ coming, I get the sense that unrelenting positivity is starting to take over the world, especially the business world, and not necessarily in a wholly good way.

Psychologists Todd Kashan and Robert Biswas-Diener address this phenomenon in their book “The Upside of your Dark Side“. They suggest that in some quarters positive psychology has been interpreted in such a way that it has become “a kind of smiling fascism”, or, in my words, a tyranny of positive thinking.

So, in opposition to the application of this smiling fascism in the business world, I think the time has come to put a bit of balance in the system with a word about the value of negativity now and again.

In praise of negative thinking

So what prompts this heretical hailing of negativity? I hear you ask.

There are a couple of drivers.

First, as the people who know me best will tell you, I am not naturally the world’s most positive guy. And for that reason I have to try hard to maintain a balance between the positive and the negative, especially in critical work-related situations.

But, I have nearly twenty years of legal experience behind me, mainly advising on and conducting one form of litigation or another. And you can’t do that kind of work, for that amount of time, without cultivating a hard-nosed and healthy regard for all the downside risks in life.

Even Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement, acknowledges that, although maladaptive in most professions, a pessimistic way of interpreting events is a virtue in law, since it promotes prudence, caution and scepticism.

But, that outlook doesn’t only come from my work experience.

There is also fair sized genetic component that goes into an individual’s level of optimism and, whilst it is possible to change the way that you generally tend to think about the world, if you’re dealt a genetically poor hand to start with, you’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up with those who inhabit the bright side of the road.

And what bothers me, is that I am beginning to see a worldview emerge in corporate life that implies that unless you are filled with extraverted energy, optimism and hope, you’re not really the kind of person wanted around here anymore.

There is also a more sinister side to this out in the wider world. Unscrupulous politicians tap into this desire for positivity at all times and simply tell people what they want to hear in order to get elected, regardless of whether it bears any relationship to the truth. UK readers, for example, will be familiar with Boris Johnson’s lies about Brexit, and much else.

And, it seems to me that because people don’t want to acknowledge that they have been duped, these lies are often let go, even when the falsity of them becomes obvious. This failure to examine falsehoods dressed up as positivity then sets the conditions for further lies and misinformation in the same vein.

Don’t misunderstand me, I know very well how valuable optimism and hope can be, along with other positive emotions and characteristics such as resilience, zest, gratitude and so on.

Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory, for example, tells us that positive emotions open up our thinking to new possibilities for action and help us to not only to thrive but also to be resilient in the face of stressful experiences.

But, it seems to me that positivity is being applied to our work-lives these days as if it’s the only tool in the box.

It’s a bit like supplying a carpenter with the latest model, highest spec super-efficient circular saw and expecting him to use it for everything he does, including hammering in nails and driving in screws.

The tyranny of positive thinking: striking a balance

What is needed is an approach that is more subtle, an approach that has regard to the particulars of person and circumstance, an approach, dare I say, that is less blinkered.

We need much less happy-clappy, ‘positivity or nothing’ and much more insight, intelligence and respect for difference.

We need less “gung-ho happiology” (Kashdan and Biswas-Diener) and more wholeness, balance and realism.

We need those who see black as well as white, and all the shades of grey in between.

In an increasingly volatile and and uncertain world, leaders, and those who coach or advise them, need to ensure that organisational climates allow for input from multiple perspectives – including from those who are willing to highlight what is not working.

Organisations are complex and so are the individuals who create them on a daily basis.

Therefore, people need to be able to give rein to the full range of their emotional repertoire, in a controlled, proportionate and targeted way.

Then, they can be more creative, more agile in their thinking and more able to meet the challenges of modern worklife than those from whom happiology demands a one-dimensional response to the world.


Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 879-889.

Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–not Just Your” good” Self–drives Success and Fulfillment. Penguin.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist, 56(3), 218.

Seligman, M. E., Verkuil, P. R., & Kang, T. H. (2001). Why lawyers are unhappy. Cardozo L. Rev., 23, 33.

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