We live in a world awash with the need to be positive and the need to play nicely with one another. Organisations, institutions & positivity guru’s have, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, hijacked positive psychology to espouse the virtues of “if you have nothing positive to say – don’t say anything at all“. Ehrenreich’s book “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World” makes a compelling argument to suggest that positive thinking resulted in the misguided invasion of Iraq, global financial crash, the collapse of Lehman Bank and the sub prime mortgage scandal. Anyone brave enough to counter the positive delusions or the belief in the mandatory positivity, optimism and cheerfulness were told to shut up, sidelined or fired. The proposed collective wilful ignorance highlights that if the negatives were ignored then all would be fine. Clearly they were not fine.
The film “Up in the Air” (2009) George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham showcases the art of spinning a positive scenario for people facing redundancy. The workforce will still feel the pain, rejection and abandonment but the business has been conducted positively for the company making the workers redundant.
Smoke & Mirrors
However, the illusion of positivity creates a sense of control upon us, that ensures that we inculcate all involved into the belief it will all be OK if we believe in positive thinking. Indeed there is a sense that we can change our world by just thinking positively – almost as if we have a positivity magnet that will attract whatever our hearts desire.
Positive thinking suggests a better life will suddenly appear when the latest positivity guru pop’s up with the next vacuous clichéd pseudo-inspirational quote to help us feel great. By simply adjusting our attitude. Needless to say, it won’t happen. We may feel great for a little while but the guru has no more investment in you other than getting you to buy their next book, or attend the next nauseating “Billy Graham-esque” evangelical positivity conference. Indeed this perspective is akin to the Pollyanna Syndrome (or positivity-bias), defined as being when someone who is blindly or foolishly optimistic, almost delusional.
Its Never as Simple as Negative and Positive
Clearly, not everyone will agree with Barbara Ehrenreich’s world view. However, we arrive at a point that rational realism and an emotional agility is missing from or organisations and within our daily lives. There are countless common sense ideas on how to become positive and happier; be kind, count your blessings,work less, spend more time with friends and family & everything in moderation. Of course there is every reason to believe that this is not a panacea to becoming happier. According to positive psychologists Dr Todd Kashdan & Dr Robert Biswas-Diener (2015) we have gone about promoting happiness and positivity in all the wrong ways. We are encouraged to ignore negativity and focus upon the positives. Indeed we don’t actually need to choose between a negative or positive but move toward a more emotionally agile to match our emotions to the situation.
Clearly being happy & positive is a good thing and beneficial to us all in our lives. However, “in a world where rejection, failure, self doubt, hypocrisy, loss, boredom, annoying and objectionable people are inevitable (the authors) reject that the notion of positivity is the only place to look for answers” (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener 2015). So what is the answer to gain an emotionally agile life, to be in a better position to embrace both positive and negative emotions to promote “wholeness” (Kashdan et al 2015). Indeed the authors go on to cite a number of evidenced based studies that extol the virtues and how the affects of negative emotions are in fact more beneficial and life affirming than positive in some instances. Moreover a great deal of memories and learning experiences develop when we are experiencing negativity or dis-comfort in one shape or form. Learning to live with negative emotions and giving them space to help us see that boredom is the affect of not enough stimulus (but can stimulate creativity), or feeling guilt because we have crossed a moral line somewhere. This information is telling us we just need to adjust something in our lives and, more to the point, we can tolerate these emotions and the discomfort they sometimes bring.
The belief we need to control our perceived negative emotions may be wrong, and that the cult of the positive is stifling emotional growth. Without promoting the emotional intelligence necessary to be able to feel guilt, shame, disgust or fear etc, and how to use the action tendencies or feedback being given we will just have an indeterminate “bad” feeling. As a result want to move away from the pain and discomfort that may just help us become balanced and emotionally happy.
More often than not we can’t actually categorise human emotion we feel so cannot use the information provided by them as we do not have a construct for them. Just end up with a bad feeling or just don’t have the words to describe how we feel. So although at times we may have a preponderance of negative emotions in our lives, the key is the become more aware and to clarify them. As a result these emotions no-longer have the toxicity that we associate with them.
I appreciate that if you got this far with this post you have gone way beyond the call of duty. However, the positivity illusions lead us to suppress those range of negative emotions that will help us grow and hopefully listen to a fear or anxiety that things may going wrong around us. How many times have we been to an interview and felt the disappointment of not doing very well or the entrepreneur who is narcissistic or the arrogant belief that their business will succeed.
Optimism & positivity serves a purpose and will help the job seeker and the entrepreneur however, without these repackaging so-called negative emotions the entrepreneur is unlikely to make the business work or the next interview will go better as we need these motivations. Negative emotions do not need to be enacted upon so acknowledging this is what anger feels like for example is enough, or maybe we need to use the triggers of the feeling to understand how we have arrived at the point of anger and frustration. Therefore having a choice to take time out to recognise things aren’t great currently and not being bamboozled by those espousing positivity, will give us all the space to know we will be just fine and we will survive these feelings. Indeed our emotions act as a metaphysical thumbs up or thumbs down, letting us know how we are doing and what to pay attention to. Recognising these negative emptions will help us to become healthier and more emotionally agile to manage situations and have the tools to springboard us to happier positive life.
Ehrenreich, B. (2010) “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World” Granta, London
Kashdan, T. B & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015) “The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self” Plume Books, New York