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Want to Be Happy? Quit Trying to Be So Happy.

It’s one thing to see the glass as half-full. It's quite another to insist on seeing water in an empty glass.
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the popular “be happy” fad. I guess what started with Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” and a controversial branch of psychology called “positive psychology” has blossomed into a full-fledged self-help movement.

A search on Amazon turned up dozens if not hundreds of recent books promising the secrets to a happy life. And you can hardly miss all the posts with titles like “How to Have a Great Day, Every Day,” “10 Daily Habits of Exceptionally Happy People” and “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.” The feel-good fluff is everywhere.

It’s one thing to be an optimist – to see the glass as half-full – but it’s another thing entirely to insist on seeing water in an empty glass. Besides being incredibly annoying, trying to force reality into a Utopian bottle, corking it and hiding it so it can do no harm can be incredibly destructive to your business, your career, even your life.

Failing to face real feelings of concern, sadness, fear and stress can lead to an almost delusional state of euphoric denial. It can keep you from dealing directly with serious personal and work-related issues, threats and conflicts. And it can dramatically compromise your decision-making ability.

Don’t get me wrong. I know people who can suck the enthusiasm right out of a room just by showing up. I’m not saying you should wear your negativity-bias on your sleeve or take your anger issues out on unsuspecting coworkers. The world does not need any more whiners, haters and negatrons, that’s for sure.

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But there are sensible, common-sense ways to deal with real issues without falling into the pitfalls of either extreme, positive or negative. Here are a few guidelines to help you stay positive without becoming delusional.

Healthy conflict is a good thing. Interestingly enough, President Barack Obama recently gave a “be happy” speech aimed at congressional Republicans. “Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time,” he said. “I know they’re not happy that I’m president, but … I’ve only got a couple years left … Let’s get some work done. Then you can be mad at the next president.”

Washington’s prolonged gridlock over critical issues is a classic case of conflict avoidance. Instead of doing their jobs as the nation’s leaders, putting their idealistic differences aside and sitting down at the negotiating table to do what’s right for the American people, both sides have dug in their heals.

I’ve seen executive teams do exactly the same thing. Who suffers? The company’s stakeholders. Truth is, leadership teams that can’t or won’t work together effectively to resolve big issues and make smart decisions will fail sooner or later. In the end, either they go down or the company does. There’s simply no way around that.

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Never sugarcoat the truth … to yourself or anyone else. There’s a place for yes-men who are more concerned about covering their own behinds than doing the right thing. It’s called government. If you’re good at telling people what you think they want to hear and perpetuating the status quo then guess what? You’d make a great bureaucrat. Living in denial is your thing. Go for it.

If, on the other hand, you want to be successful in the business world, then learn to face and deal with issues in the most direct, genuine and effective way possible. Don’t play games, mince words, make believe or put on a façade. Just tell the truth and do the right thing. Happiness and positivity should not even enter into the equation.

Emotions are your gut, your instincts. Trust them.  It’s one thing to temporarily and knowingly compartmentalize your feelings to keep them from impeding your ability to do your job or perform a task. Those in the defense, law enforcement and medical professions know exactly what I’m talking about. It’ll work out as long as you eventually deal with it at some point.

That said, trying to dismiss your emotions entirely and sweep them under the rug is never a good strategy. There’s a simple reason for that. Feelings are your gut, your instincts. They tell you when things are wrong, things you should be concerned about or fearful of. Denying the existence of those feelings is a very bad idea.

Think about it. If your business partner is about to do something that makes your skin crawl, that’s not a time for positivity or trying to be happy and making believe the whole crawling skin thing will just go away. That’s a time to tell the guy how you really feel and have it out. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

There’s just one caveat to all of this. The human mind can be a pretty convoluted thing. Some people are simply unaware of all the baggage they have buried somewhere deep down. We see it as neurotic, narcissistic, bullying, angry or aggressive behavior, but they’re all manifestations of this subconscious cover-up.

For those people, a little positivity and happiness might come in handy. But I’d start with a good shrink.

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