As a psychologist who runs courses on Mindfulness which include positive psychology research and techniques, I often have questions from people who are afraid that I am going to ask them to deny their feelings,  to force them into “positive thinking” and to go around laughing and smiling while they are actually feeling upset or angry. 

For a start, faked positivity doesn’t work. When you are faking a smile, but actually feeling upset, your brain shows activity in the areas typical of negative emotion and  your body shows abnormal heart function.  These findings and others like them, suggest that faked positivity may have more negative than positive effects.  Positivity needs to be genuine, to be “hearfelt” as Barbara Fredrickson, the expert on Positive Emotion puts it. 

Bear in mind that I also work one to one as a holistic psychotherapist and counsellor, where I encourage people “to speak their truth,” which often involves them expressing negative thoughts and experiences. I see no conflict between validating our experience of how we are now, and ALSO  developing a more optimistic mindset that focuses on  more positive interpretations and outcomes for the future. 

But maybe we don’t have to do it all in one breath!

Setbacks are a natural part of life. Our lives have a mixture of good and bad experiences – a beloved friend who dies prematurely, a disappointment that we have been passed over for promotion or anger over a failed relationship. Again, research shows that happy and optimistic people have roughly the same amount of positive AND negative experiences as people who are anxious or depressed. They just go through them in a different way. 

So how can we navigate our negative emotions or experiences in a more mindful way, in a way that does not ‘colour‘ our mindset permanently. 

Say we have just had a major disappointment, we are upset. We start by noticing it, allowing it to be, we look into it a bit more in a spirit of understanding – why is it so disappointing for me, what had I hoped for? Our attitude is one of kindly understanding to ourselves , as if we were relating to a much loved  friend. We treat ourselves with kindness .There is a handy mnemonic RAIN to describe these four steps.

ecognize what we are feeling.
Allow it to be there, let it be, don’t try to suppress it, this is what is at the moment.

Investigate it with curiosity. 

Nurture ourselves with kindness. 

Allow it to be there, let it be, don’t try to suppress it, this is what is at the moment.

Investigate it with curiosity. 

Nurture ourselves with kindness. 

That nurturing can take many forms. 

We can practice some Loving Kindness Meditation, including ourselves in it. 

We may reflect on our own nature, our own goodness and love , how far we have come on our path, the strength of our spirit. 

We may treat ourselves by spending time with people we love, or doing things we love, or maybe a combination of both together. Experiencing positive emotion has an “undoing” effect , helping to dissolve the negative and stressful.  

We can bring to mind and appreciate all the good things and experiences we have had. 

We can give ourselves something to look forward to: book an event or a trip. 

We bring our senses back to the present moment, rather than imagining the worst possible outcomes. We avoid too much analysis. 

It  helps if we have projects that truly engross us (Flow)

We can look at our interpretation of the event, see the bigger picture, anything we can  learn  from it. 

We can of course, choose to deepen our mindfulness practice. One of the main benefits of mindfulness practice is that over time, it increases emotional flexibility, our capacity to move on, not to keep reliving the disappointment and resilience, our capacity to bounce back. 

Much of what I have said here, could be summarized with this quote from Viktor Frankl, survivor of the concentration camps: 

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” —Viktor Frankl

  1. Ekman P, Davidson RJ, Friesen WV. The Duchenne smile: Emotional expression and brain physiology II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1990;58:342–353. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
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  3. Fredrickson , B “Positivity”. One World Publications 
  4. For more info on differences between how happy people vs unhappy people react to setbacks see my blog post

Next Five Week Course starts Tues 9th April 7.30pm