In recent posts, our focus has been on happiness. More specifically, we have concerned ourselves with different approaches to increasing happiness, with these strategies grounded in theory and supported by research findings. One of the recurring motifs in this area is the role played by positivity and the experience of positive emotion.
Let us be clear at the outset today, positivity is healthy, and, generally speaking, experiencing more of it will tend to be beneficial in terms of happiness and, on a broader level, our overall well-being. But, as with many things, when taken to an extreme, it can become counterproductive, and we would be remiss to move on in this series without acknowledging and lingering on this point.
In contemporary society, it can sometimes feel as if a ‘cult’ of positivity has developed. “You need to be more positive” is a mantra among the true believers, seemingly no matter what the issue or problem, and there are few greater slights in such circles than to be labelled (shock horror!) negative.
The ever-lucrative pop psychology book market is partially responsible for fuelling this trend. There is nothing inherently negative (!) about popular psychology books. Far from it, in fact, as presenting psychological theories and insights in an accessible manner for a mass mainstream audience is a laudable endeavour, and one at which many academic and research psychologists fail miserably, given the predilection for unnecessarily dense (and at times bordering on incomprehensible) writing that seems to come with the territory.
However, pop psychology books can become problematic in terms of their influence when writers offer either incomplete or overly-simplistic summaries or overviews of sometimes complex theories and ideas. This can be a breeding ground for misunderstanding. Unfortunately, it seems that this is precisely what has happened in recent years as it relates to how some of the general public have come to think about positivity and that catch-all, big-basket idea of ‘being positive’.
Harvard-based psychologist Susan David has written and spoken around this topic and in doing so refers to ‘the tyranny of positivity’. This phrase serves two purposes – on the one hand it refers to the sometimes relentless ‘be positive, think positive’ messaging around us, but it also alludes to the idea that believing that positivity can act as some kind of universal panacea sets people up for failure, and depending upon the situation, the consequences of that failure can be serious, far-reaching, and psychologically damaging.
She points to the unintended adverse consequences that can come from trying to force positivity in any given situation, whether because someone thinks they ‘should’ be positive or if they are being told that all will be well as long as they ‘banish negativity’ and ‘embrace positivity’.
Sometimes, all will not be well. Sometimes, being positive will not lead to the outcomes that we want or hope for. This is the nature of life. Bad things happen. We suffer. We experience pain and loss, and all the positivity in the world will not be sufficient to hold that tide at bay when it comes. In situations where our attitude can make a difference, then, yes, actively cultivating positivity may well yield dividends, but not every life situation will lend itself to that approach. This is the nuance that, at times, appears to get lost in the current mainstream conversation.
In a 2016 interview with The Washington Post, when asked about the pitfalls around being positive and actively trying to become happy, David answered in the following way:
“A lot of our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant, so people will just say things like, “just be positive and things will be fine.” “The tyranny of positivity” was what a friend of mine called it. She recently died of cancer, and what she meant was if being in remission was just a matter of positive thinking, then all of her friends in her breast cancer support group would be alive today. By sending out the message that our thoughts are responsible for creating our health, well-being, and reality, we are overvaluing the power of our thoughts, while making people feel culpable when something bad happens to them. They feel it is because they weren’t positive enough… Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard. I believe the strong cultural focus on happiness and thinking positively is actually making us less resilient… When we tell ourselves to “think positive” and to push negative or difficult emotions aside, it won’t work. It doesn’t work.”
David does not approach this area with any axe to grind or hostility to the idea that psychology should devote time and resources to well-being and happiness. Indeed, the opposite is the case, as an inspection of her writing credits reveals that she co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, which weighs in at more than 1,000 pages, so it is reasonable to assume that she has some knowledge in the area.
The perspective offered by David may, at first glance, appear to run contrary to some of the tenets of positive psychology, but if you probe beneath the surface, then you may see that this is not necessarily so. At the core of positive psychology is the idea that we should cultivate self-knowledge, learn more about ourselves, and identity our strengths. Yes, that may lead to conscious efforts to change and grow and develop, but it can also facilitate the ease and contentment that flows from knowing who we are, being that person, and being more comfortable in our skin. In essence, this points to the idea that happiness is best seen as a by-product of achievement rather than being an objective in its own right.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.