I once worked at a company that held positivity as a core value. Employees were so encouraged to remain positive all the time that I was once reprimanded by my boss at this company for posting a personal tweet about wanting to stay in bed one cold weekend morning. Apparently, positivity extends so far as always being happy to get out of bed, even when it’s cold outside, it’s not a workday, and your bed is toasty warm.
I thought I was a fairly positive person in general before I joined that company. But that experience made me think I’m more of a cynic. Being positive about everything all day long just didn’t come naturally to me.
In fact, it turns out few of us can be positive every minute of every day—even if it’s just while we’re at work. And the side effects of a workplace that enforces positivity (and, as a result, the suppressing of any negative emotions) can be downright dangerous.
Why suppressing negative emotions is worse than venting them
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of a workplace culture focused on positive emotions is that none of us are positive all the time. Which means to fit in at work we end up suppressing our negative emotions.
Much worse than venting, suppressing negative emotions is bad for our health. One study found people who suppressed anger had a three times higher risk of heart attack than those who let their anger out.
Studies of people in rehab and addiction treatment facilities have also found suppressing negative thoughts can be harmful. Those who suppressed thoughts relating to their addiction and cravings tended to harbor more of those thoughts overall. Suppressing addiction-related thoughts also made study participants have stronger stress reactions to cues relating to their addictions.
Other research has found suppressing negative emotions can lead to emotional overeating, and emotional exhaustion. And suppressing thoughts tends to lead to an effect called dream rebound, where the more those thoughts are suppressed, the more likely they are to show up in dreams later.
The downsides of positivity
It might seem counterintuitive to talk about the downsides of being positive, but there are two main ways positivity can lead to negative effects: when we’re overly positive, or when we’re trying to be positive always. And though studies have shown benefits to a positive attitude, experts say the link between positivity and better health or wealth is generally undemonstrated, and we’re lacking any proof of positive emotions causing any related benefits.
On the other hand, research has shown too much positivity can lead people to be less motivated, pay less attention to detail, be more selfish, and indulge more in risky behaviors like binge drinking and overeating.
One reason positive emotions lead to risky behavior is because we tend to equate happiness and safety. When we feel happy and connected to others, we’re also likely to have higher oxytocin levels—often called the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin makes us feel safe, and tends to peak when we’re feeling close to others emotionally and physically. With higher levels of oxytocin in our bodies, we feel more safe, and thus pay less attention to danger. While that might have meant being vulnerable to predators for our ancestors, today it’s more likely to mean indulging in risky behaviors like unsafe sex or binge drinking.
Other studies have found we’re more gullible when we’re in a good mood. Researchers used films to put people in good or bad moods before surveying them on their thoughts about common urban myths. Those in positive moods tended to be more likely to believe urban myths, rather than questioning their validity.
This shows there could be negative effects on employees’ critical thinking skills if they’re always suppressing negative emotions.
It’s not just feeling positive that has downsides, either. Forcing people to feel happy when they don’t can also have bad side effects.
Research has shown positive affirmations (e.g. saying “I am loved” or “I am strong” to yourself) actually backfire when used by people with low self-esteem. Rather than buying into the affirmations, these people tend to believe the opposite even more strongly than they did before.
So if being positive all the time is a bad idea, what benefits can we get from negative emotions?
The benefits of negativity
While negative emotions can obviously hinder our performance and communication in some cases, they exist for a reason. Negative emotions alert us to danger, whether physical, emotional, or social, and help us solve problems.
Anger, in particular, has also been shown to improve creativity. When researchers put subjects into an angry or sad mood before testing their creativity, they found angry participants came up with more creative solutions (and more solutions overall) when given problems to solve.
When we’re feeling a little down, researchers have also shown we pay more attention to social cues, helping us get along better with others. We also tend to treat others more fairly when we’re not feeling at our best.
And pessimists have the upper hand when things go badly, too. One study showed pessimists are less prone to depression when dealing with a negative life event, such as the death of a friend.
Finally, negative people have been shown to have better negotiation and decision-making skills, more stable marriages, lower risk of heart attack, longer lives overall, and even more wealth.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with positive emotions. We all love to feel happy, excited, and motivated.
The issue is the growing tendency for workplaces to force constant positivity on employees. To be human is to have negative emotions, and if we try to suppress them, nature has a way of making sure they get out somehow—even if they have to pop up in our dreams.