Just Be Positive?

Ever heard someone say “just be positive, and it’ll all work out”?  Ever thought that sounded hollow, cliché, or insensitive?  Me too.  In fact, you might say much of my coaching philosophy is based around this one idea, or should I say, the opposite of this idea.

You see, I firmly believe that the idea behind “being positive” comes from corporate culture, in which managers are tasked with creating a positive environment.  This supposedly increases productivity and happiness, and ensures that everyone under their management helps to create a positive environment too.  And thus, the myth of being positive was born.

So what happens when you don’t feel positive?  What happens when you don’t feel like smiling, or laughing, or being the fake person that your boss wants you to be?  In corporate America, there’s really only one option:

There’s the door.

Here are 3 main reasons why I don’t subscribe to the “just be positive” approach, and why you shouldn’t either:


1. You can’t be anyone other than yourself.

“Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” – Oscar Wilde

It’s my belief that you are you, nothing more, nothing less.  And there’s nothing that you, me, or anyone else can do to change that.

And why should we?  What right do any of us have to tell anyone else how they should act, or who they should be, or what they should do?

If you’ve every heard someone say “just be yourself,” that’s what they’re trying to get at.  Though somewhat cliché, it does highlight the fact that we are at our best when we are embracing who we are at the core, and then acting like it.  When someone tells you to be positive, what they are essentially telling you is to stop doing what you’re doing (being yourself), and start doing what they feel is the appropriate thing to do (not being yourself).  You’re offending, inconveniencing, or irritating them, and it’s time for you to change.

They say that empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.  I would submit that telling someone to just “be positive” is the opposite of that, and something that we should be more aware of.  We need to be able to grieve with others when they are grieving, and be there for those who simply need us to be there.


2. Being fake is ultimately self-defeating.

“The less satisfaction we derive from being ourselves, the greater is our desire to be like others.” – Eric Hoffer

Much of the underlying reasons for why being positive is so rallied around in the workplace is this idea that happiness = productivity.  The happier the person, the more productive they are, end of story.  The problem is, life is hard, and life produces sadness sometimes.  So what happens when we’re all walking around just being happy all of the time?

The answer is, a lot of us end up walking around being fake.  Now, granted, we’re all guarded or fake to some degree, for politeness and for survival, among other reasons.  However, I would argue that being yourself, rather than being artificially happy or positive all of the time, ultimately leads to greater productivity, which also happens to be what life coaching is all about.  Coaching is a process that helps you connect with your core self and become more aware of your wants, needs, and desires, so that you can make better decisions and achieve a better life.  It is not a game of getting you to think “happy thoughts” all the time.  It is a journey of self-discovery, actualization, and lasting results.


3. Embracing who you are, not what others tell you to be, is empowering.

“I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.” – Oprah Winfrey

There is a word that I personally use a lot in coaching, and that word is authenticity.  An authentic life is the end result of someone who isn’t living according to the wishes and whims of others, and instead chooses to act according to their own personality, and live according to their own ambitions.

All of us can spot inauthentic people in an instant, so why not put yourself on display for the world?  The worst thing that can happen is that they will see the real you, and the “real you” is a lot more special than you might realize.


So what’s the answer then?

“You must first be who you really are, then, do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.” – Margaret Young

So, in the end, what is the opposite of “being positive”?  The answer lies within you, not within anybody else telling you how to act.  Are you happy?  If yes, perfect!  If not, then that’s okay too.  It’s okay to feel sad sometimes.  If you’ve just gone through a traumatic situation, who wouldn’t feel sad?  It’s when you gain the awareness surrounding such feelings, that you start to feel truly empowered to either change how you feel, or to change what you’re doing in life.


Have you ever had a “just be positive” moment? What was your reaction in the moment and after? Did the person have good intentions, and if so did that have any bearing on how you felt? Share your story below and join the discussion!


About the Author:

The owner of Life by John and a specialist in the field of career and life coaching, John Patterson helps people every day with various relationship, career, and general life issues that have a direct impact on their lives. John spends most of his free time with his wife Sheila and their two cats Kitty and Spock.


  1. Sheila July 31, 2013 at 8:42 PM

    I couldn’t agree more, I know we talk about it all the time, but I can’t stand corporate culture. Especially the whole “be positive” thing. But one of the good things is, the younger generations seem to appreciate authenticity more; we don’t stand for anything fake, and people are starting to realize this.

    • John Patterson August 1, 2013 at 11:47 AM

      Agreed. I think that younger generations specifically (as you mention) aren’t just finding the whole “be positive” approach to be cliche or simply good manners anymore (as older generations have). Rather, they perceive it as something slightly more sinister – as an actual deliberate attempt to have you change the subject to something they would rather hear instead – puppies, rainbows, sunshine, whatever. As long as it’s not negative or something they’ll have to have empathy toward, you’re fine, and of course that represents a rather disturbing trend away from authenticity and compassion in society.

  2. Rod February 24, 2016 at 7:23 PM

    I think there is a balance, as there is in everything. Asking someone to be more positive can be very supportive in a situation for which there are no easy or ready answers, no easy changes owing to life situation. On the other hand allowing the person to express in appropriate terms their frustration and sadness is also important. There is a difference between stuck for months and a friend giving you the opportunity to get some of the pain out. Sometimes “just try to see the positives” comes from genuine caring, sometimes it can actually be rather patronizing.

    • John Patterson February 25, 2016 at 11:31 AM

      Hi Rod, couldn’t agree more :-)

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