The tyranny of the positive attitude in America: observation and speculation

J Clin Psychol. 2002 Sep;58(9):965-91. doi: 10.1002/jclp.10093.


According to both popular and professional indicators, the push for the positive attitude in America is on the rise. After considering the popular culture zeitgeist, I compare and contrast two recent professional psychology movements-those of positive psychology and postmodern therapy-both of which rest on a foundation of optimism and positive thinking despite their opposing views about a proper philosophy of science. I then present cross-cultural empirical research that calls into question the typical (North American) assumption that a positive attitude is necessary for (a sense of) well-being. I also consider findings in health psychology, clinical/counseling psychology, and organizational behavioral science, findings which call into question the assumption that accentuating the positive (and eliminating the negative) is necessarily beneficial in terms of physical and mental health. The clinical/therapeutic implications of this analysis are addressed, as I put forth my conjecture about the existence of what I call the "tyranny of the positive attitude" in the form of a question: If there indeed now exists unprecedented pressure to accentuate the positive, could it then be that the pressure itself to be happy and optimistic contributes to at least some forms of unhappiness?

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Attitude*
  • Culture*
  • Empathy
  • Humans
  • Observation
  • Social Behavior*
  • United States