*I apologize in advance for the number of times I write the word “positive” in this post, it is positively excessive. Also if you think self-help books, introspection, etc. are dumb, you may not be interested in this post*
I have always prided myself in being a “positive” person, but recently, I have learned that there are a lot of misconceptions associated with this characterization. Either that, or my understanding of the term is different from others’. I first realized the power of consciously adopting a “positive” mindset on my own happiness, productivity, and appreciation for life around the beginning of high school. I noticed that, if I could find something to look forward to or to be happy about, the hard things in life became easier. I even started a blog at one point called “powerfully positive” (cringe). So, I have been intentional about maintaining a “positive” mindset for quite some time, but recently I have seen a wave of opinions on the internet that seem to discourage people from doing so. I recognize some potential issues with the way positivity is commonly conceptualized (hence the quotation marks), but I also think some criticisms are founded in misunderstandings. As somebody who tends to be outspoken about my feelings on being optimistic, I feel compelled to share my thoughts, which are somewhat mixed.
I began to reassess my thoughts on positivity as a broad concept, and on its actual effects, when I listened to the audiobook for Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.” The essence of this book is that people, seeking happier lives, follow the advice of self-help gurus and others who simply echo conventional wisdom about “trying to be ‘positive’ all the time”– and that this advice fails them because it is an unrealistic and unsustainable approach to life. Here’s an excerpt from the description:
” Manson makes the argument, backed both by academic research and well-timed poop jokes, that improving our lives hinges not on our ability to turn lemons into lemonade, but on learning to stomach lemons better. Human beings are flawed and limited—”not everybody can be extraordinary, there are winners and losers in society, and some of it is not fair or your fault.” Manson advises us to get to know our limitations and accept them. Once we embrace our fears, faults, and uncertainties, once we stop running and avoiding and start confronting painful truths, we can begin to find the courage, perseverance, honesty, responsibility, curiosity, and forgiveness we seek. “
After having read (listened to) the book, my main issue with Manson’s argument stems from his understanding of what the “point” of being positive is. I don’t disagree with his perspective on embracing the negative aspects of life so as to change them– in fact, I think that is a necessary step. And in general, his book is a unique take in the “self-help” genre, so I do recommend reading it. However, he, and many other critics, seem to believe that positivity is an intended cure for the negative aspects of one’s life. I’m not too sure how they envision the often-prescribed mentality playing out, but I think it might be something along the lines of “if something goes bad in your life, you are supposed to just smile and stay positive and pretend/ convince yourself that you are not upset, hurt, angry, *insert other negative emotion here*.” They think this is bad. And it would be bad, if that were the intention of those recommending a more positive outlook. This would not be a helpful mindset to adopt. Pushing real and legitimate feelings under the rug would help nobody as they would likely resurface.
But in fact, while this widespread misconception of “positivity” exists, this has never been my understanding of how a positive mindset is intended to be incorporated. To me, its foundation is a basic, conscious appreciation for life, one’s health, one’s opportunities, food, sleep, water, etc. What I have ingrained into my own mind is that, as long as my basic needs are met, anything else is essentially extra. With this mindset, I almost never lose. I remind myself that there is always someone out there who would give a lot to be in my position. This is not meant to perpetuate an argument that, just because somebody is in a “better” position in life than somebody else, their problems are “illegitimate”; everybody has their own struggles. The idea is also not to convince oneself that everything is okay, or to ignore problems. The idea is to comfort oneself by recognizing the fact that, when your basic needs are met, everything will be okay, even if it doesn’t feel like it right at that moment because of some circumstance that is less than ideal. Comforting oneself with this fact leads to a more sane mental state and a more neutral internalization of the events that occur in our lives. It means that when something goes wrong, one need not break down or find themselves in a rock bottom state mentally– instead, they can take things as they come, and respond in the most reasonable, rational, effective, helpful way for the situation at hand, and make the most of it. And I have noticed, in fact, that those who suffer significantly in life are often the people who are the most outwardly positive about life.
Thus, positivity is a mindset, one that facilitates actions to improve one’s life. Thinking positively isn’t about complacency, and it isn’t a magical solution or a naive way of thinking. It is a mentality that allows one to be hopeful instead of hopeless. One can be sad, or even depressed, and still think positively (although it may be more difficult to garner the energy or desire to do so). One’s chemical state or mental health is, by definition, out of his/her conscious control. One’s outlook is within his/her conscious control, which is exactly why the two can coexist and why somebody can be both suffering emotionally or physically and consciously positive at the same time. The idea, for example, is that being consciously “positive” and depressed is still healthier, and will lead to better outcomes, than being consciously “negative” and depressed.
So, in general, positivity is not a cure, but has the potential to help in a variety of situations. In fact, the point in my writing this is to challenge the understanding that positivity is intended to “fix” one’s problems. Most notably, in the case of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, a “positive outlook” is never a cure, but just one possible part of a remedy. I don’t think anybody who is informed about mental health would argue that a person could just “think positively” to cure their mental health issues, but many believe that this is the intent of those promoting a positive outlook, due (I believe, although I’m not positive 😉 ) to misconceptions regarding the nature and purpose of intentional positivity.
Although I never thought it would be controversial to promote a mindset that is intended to facilitate happiness, I have come across many alternative viewpoints recently. I think it is a good thing, though, for those who are interested to partake in these conversations about how one’s outlook affects his or her life and overall happiness. Perhaps there’s a normative question about how important “happiness” really is. For example, some may gain more utility from feeling another emotion. I know that for me, personally, happiness definitely improves my overall utility in life. It’s completely okay to disagree that positivity is even helpful; there is room for debate on the extent to which it really facilitates the actionable changes needed to better one’s state in life, which likely varies on an individual basis. However, it is unhelpful to perpetuate unnecessary hindrances to happiness based upon a misunderstanding of what it really means to try to “be positive.” This is just my interpretation of what that really means, but I would love to continue this conversation if anybody has a different take. Please comment with any thoughts you have, because I am genuinely curious how others feel about this issue which has, until recently, seemed like a no-brainer to me!