Entrepreneurs have a toxic positivity problem. Tragic optimism may be the cure

Both science and experience suggest that positivity is beneficial for entrepreneurs. Studies show that optimism helps your brain work better, and scientists can literally see positive thinking light up important parts of the brain on brain scans. Meanwhile, other research shows that exuding cheerful confidence helps you get hired, rise to leadership, and gain influence.

But as useful as positivity is, it also has a downside. And I’m not just talking about those infamous occasions when optimism has risen to the level of delusion or outright scam. Demanding constant positivity from yourself and others, even in the face of challenges, not only hinders you from meeting those challenges, it forces you to suppress or judge valid emotions. The result is usually exhaustion, guilt, or a full-blown mental health crisis.

Psychologists call this kind of forced cheerfulness “toxic positivity” and warn that it is especially harmful in a time of wars, pandemics, inflation and political divisions. “In the end, we just feel bad because we feel bad. It actually prevents any healing, progress, or problem solving,” cautions psychologist Natalie Dattilo.

This is especially a mystery for entrepreneurs. Toxic positivity is detrimental to your success and mental health, but being relentlessly optimistic is an important part of the job. What is the solution? According to many psychologists, the answer is “tragic optimism.”

Swap tragic optimism for toxic positivity.

First, what exactly is tragic optimism? Created by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, the phrase refers to “the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence,” writes psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in a recent Atlantic Ocean article† When toxic positivity actually turns away and whistles in response to suffering, tragic optimism looks at it and asks, “What can I make of this mess?”

“Frankl argues that we can make suffering meaningful, see guilt as a necessity to improve ourselves, and interpret the fragility, unpredictability and transience of life as motivation to find meaning.” declared philosopher Anna Gotlib in a recent newspaper.

Closing your eyes to suffering may sound like the easier way, but as author Emily Esfahani Smith points out, it doesn’t work either. In the end, we are simply haunted by our pain. “Suffering is part of life, and the question is how do you deal with it?” she says. “Many people will deny or ignore their suffering, and many other people will be completely overwhelmed by it.”

Tragic optimism, on the other hand, recognizes both suffering and human resilience. While no one welcomes tragedy or struggle, science shows that many people eventually grow through difficult experiences. Take the pandemic as an example. A huge review of more than 1,000 studies shocked even the researchers themselves when they found that depression and anxiety levels had returned to normal on average by the summer of 2020. study “found that even during those terrifying early months of the pandemic, more than 56 percent of people reported feeling grateful,” notes Barry Kaufman.

Cultivate “existential gratitude.”

Which brings us to practical takeaway meals for entrepreneurs. Sure, creating something new requires positivity, but it doesn’t require you to ignore the suffering. Instead, tragic optimism invites you to see struggle as an opportunity to learn and grow. That means acknowledging pain, yet counting your blessings.

Barry Kaufman concludes his article by arguing that we all chill with the toxic positivity and instead cultivate what researchers call “existential gratitude.”

“Gratitude as a fleeting emotion can come and go, but gratitude, or ‘existential gratitude’, can permeate your whole life, with all its ups and downs. It asks for nothing more than to look for the hidden benefit and the opportunities for growth in everything,” he writes, ending with a touching quote from researcher Robert Emmons: “Gratitude is not just a switch to turn on when things are going well; it is also a light that shines in the darkness.”

So the next time you’re tempted to navigate your way through tough times, consider tragic optimism as an alternative approach. Only by facing pain squarely can you explore it for opportunities for gratitude and meaning.

The opinions expressed here by businesstraverse.com columnists are their own, not businesstraverse.com’s.