Both science and experience suggest that positivity is useful for entrepreneurs. Studies show optimism helps your brain work better, and scientists can literally see positive thinking lighting up key areas of the brain on brain scans. Meanwhile, other research shows that projecting cheery confidence helps you get hired, ascend to leadership, and win influence. 

But as useful as positivity is, it also has a dark side. 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 addressing those challenges, but also forces you to repress or judge valid emotions. The result is usually exhaustion, guilt, or a full-blown mental health crisis.  

Psychologists call this sort of forced good cheer toxic positivity, and warn that it's particularly harmful at a time of war, pandemics, inflation, and political division. "We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It actually stalls out any healing or progress or problem solving," psychologist Natalie Dattilo cautions. 

For entrepreneurs in particular this is a conundrum. Toxic positivity is harmful to your success and mental health, but being relentlessly optimistic is a key part of the job. What's the solution? According to many psychologists, the answer is tragic optimism. 

Swap tragic optimism for toxic positivity. 

First, what exactly is tragic optimism? Coined by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, the phrase refers to "the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence," psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes in a recent Atlantic article. If toxic positivity basically turns away and whistles in response to suffering, tragic optimism looks at it head on and asks, "What can I make from this mess?" 

"Frankl argues that we can make suffering meaningful, view guilt as an imperative to improve ourselves, and interpret the fragility, unpredictability, and transitoriness of life as motivation to find meaning," explained philosopher Anna Gotlib in a recent paper. 

Closing your eyes to suffering might sound like the easier path, but as author Emily Esfahani Smith points out, it also doesn't work. We just end up getting walloped by our pain in the end. "Suffering is a part of life, and the question is how are you going to cope with it?" she says. "A lot of people are going to deny or ignore their suffering, and a lot of other people are going to be completely overwhelmed by it." 

Tragic optimism instead acknowledges both suffering and human resilience. While no one welcomes tragedy or struggle, science shows that many people actually end up growing from difficult experiences. Take the pandemic as an example. A huge review of more than 1,000 studies shocked even the researchers themselves when it showed that, on average, depression and anxiety levels had returned to normal by the summer of 2020. Another study  "found that even during those terrifying early months of the pandemic, more than 56 percent of people reported feeling grateful," Barry Kaufman points out. 

Cultivate existential gratitude.

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

Barry Kaufman closes his article by advocating we all chill out with the toxic positivity and instead cultivate what researchers call existential gratitude.

"Gratitude as a fleeting emotion can come and go, but gratefulness, or 'existential gratitude,' can pervade your entire life, throughout its ups and downs. It asks for nothing but is on the lookout to find the hidden benefit and the opportunities for growth in everything," he writes, closing with a moving quote from researcher Robert Emmons: "Gratitude is not just a switch to turn on when things go well; it is also a light that shines in the darkness."

So next time you're tempted to fake smile your way through tough times, consider tragic optimism as an alternate approach. It is only by facing pain square on that you can probe it for opportunities for gratitude and meaning.