The first time she said "no" to my proposal it was for all the right reasons; we were too young, still in college in two separate towns etc. We took a little break from the relationship and then dated furiously for another year and a half. Again, I asked her to marry me and this time the no was a definitive, but gentle, derivation of "not if you were the last man on Earth." It was devastating, made all the more so by my well-meaning friends telling me to "look on the bright side" or to "be positive."
A 2009 study printed in Psychological Science found that "forcing" people to think positively actually made them feel more insecure. The fact of the matter is, if you're facing a negative reality then thinking positively about it is a form of denial. It is much better to focus on the negative, identify the problem areas and to map a plan to improve or change the situation.
The adage "be positive" is a variation of "accept your circumstances," which is often defeatist and potentially destructive advice. The better approach is to acknowledge the situation is indeed dire but there are alternatives, one just has to recognize that they exist and act to change current circumstances.
Frequently, people will ask why I concentrate on the negative. I do so to focus attention on an issue or problem to achieve a solution. When you're discussing city streets with your friends, which street comes to mind?
Is it one of the numerous well-paved, smooth, wide streets in town or is it the portion of Sanborn that mimicked driving in a war zone? Which approach would you prefer, the Mitchell City Council to "be positive" about all of the great streets we have in town or to focus on the negative and get on with fixing Sanborn?
The same is true for personal crises. A study published in Motivation and Emotion concluded, "... when people acknowledge negative emotions toward their relationships or chronic illnesses, it helps them adjust their behavior and have more appropriate responses." The study goes on to say, "... positive thinking in the face of negative circumstances can lead to feelings of failure and depression."
Educational research has identified the silver bullet for success; it's that ephemeral quality called "grit." Those with grit don't look at the bright side in the face of a bad outcome but rather get on with doing what needs improving. The Penn Residence Program, run by the US Army's Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program, concentrates on grit in coping; emphasizing it's important not to be positive when a soldier is dealing with a negative outcome.
That's because the "be positive" mantra can sound to a wounded warrior like a denigration of their pain, a dismissal of their challenges and a denial of their hard road to recovery. In 2012, the University of Queensland released a study published in Emotion that determined, "... when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions."
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. There are several premises in the book, one is that the "be positive" refrain is destructive to people in ways like those I've already alluded to.
Another theme is the "look on the bright side" philosophy encourages mediocrity and acceptance of circumstances that could and should be changed. A "be positive" attitude can have negative health consequences if it encourages people not to take difficult, painful, and medically necessary steps, cancer treatments for example. The book discusses other toxic effects of the "be positive" movement as well.
Two-time Olympic Gold medalist Abby Wambach said, "I've always been motivated more by negative comments than by positive ones. I know what I do well. Tell me what I don't do well." That's good advice if delivered with the right intonation and received in the proper spirit.