Like so many platitudes there is some value to: be positive.
It suggests that the way we view life impacts our experience and that is borne out by research.
Shawn Achor shows that knowing someone’s circumstances predicts as little as 10 per cent of their long-term happiness, wellbeing is largely determined by what we make of things. Achor believes that being authentically positive creates a ‘happiness advantage’ that increases intelligence and creativity.
It’s destructive when ‘be positive’ is used as a catch-all-cure-all with no bearing on the circumstances of the person who is reaching out for support, which is challenging enough for most people as it is.
Say you’re struggling with a complex project that keeps getting derailed. What you need is insight, advice, and suggestions on how you might approach it differently and instead you get: just be positive. How useless.
Chin up darling, solider on.
A bigger concern is the ‘cult of positivity’ that surrounds us with its unspoken demand to be up, up, up all the time.
A so-called ‘negative’ thought enters the head and instead of sitting with it, because it’s uncomfortable, we immediately try to transform it into something palatable.
We steer clear of people going through difficult times because we do not have the capability to deal with their anxiety, or despair.
Be positive, we tell them, as a way of avoiding their pain and our depth.
Positivity can be a ‘get out of jail free’ card for emotional life, a distraction from discomfort, an addiction.
Being around people who are always great, wonderful, fantastic, astonishing day in and day out is tiring and makes real connection difficult.
After a time, it feels like you’re with a caricature. What’s the point?
In his wonderful book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking Oliver Burkeman says superficial self-help fails (this is different from directed, long-term practice.)
He says ‘the effort to try to feel [always] happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable’ and I agree.
That’s not to dismiss the benefits of optimism. Living mindfully creates engagement, meaning, helps us cope. Being tireless upbeat is ‘pure pleasure seeking’ and founder of the positive psychology movement Martin Seligman says it does not work.
Burkeman goes further, suggesting there is just as much value in a negative path to happiness in which we celebrate failure and pessimism (not to be confused with cynicism, which is a poison).
There’s no doubt pain focuses the mind.
I am not suggesting that if you normally feel pressured to be up you suddenly flip over and share your deepest, darkest feelings.
Be discerning. The people we trust and who mean the most to us get to see who we really are.
This does not mean we are false with people we hardly know, but that we recognize that people have different roles in our lives.
By allowing authentic rather than enforced positivity you build emotional muscle and empathy, becoming a rounded person who others can connect with more deeply. Likewise you can train your brain for optimism and resilience by dedicating a small amount of time each day to gratitude, exercise, journaling and being kind.