(Half empty? Half full?)
Ever get sick of being fed the standard ‘look on the bright side’, ‘be more positive’, or ‘choose happiness’ (usually served with a side of ‘cheer up; things could be worse’) when reaching out to those around you with a heart-felt and legitimate plea for just a modicum of understanding and help with some life obstacle that is profoundly impacting on you?
Well, according to a recent British Psychological Society article 2. , the jury is now in regarding the cult of positivity, a revivified 1950’s doctrine3. that, in the (overwhelmingly youthful) parlance of the neuvo-connected, went viral.
Indeed no sooner had some hyper-vigilant spring cleaner dusted off a yellowing copy of the tome, than the globe witnessed its snowballing into a boom industry, where nary a glance at key social and scientific media in the last 10 years has failed to uncover some spruiking of its virtues and benefits and, more recently, a growing backlash of opinion against it 4-11..
Eerily akin to the L. Ron Hubbard phenomenon, the ‘power of positive thinking’ lauded mind over matter, promising that by conscious overriding of ‘negative’ (read ‘rational’ in most cases) mindsets via the rigorous application of particular and prescribed affirmations and visualisations, one would achieve/attract (witness the rise and fall of “The Secret”) a better reality than that possible for the (lazy and non-believing) majority. Although unfounded, the theory had a high intuitive value as it leveraged innate competitive instinct and held up well when tested against many cultural canons:
“The triumph of the truly great
Is never, never to despair” 12.
Far less metaphysical and more evidence-based, “Positive Psychology” is the other major offshoot of the positivity craze. This branch of psychology explores the relationship between behavioural patterns (are you an optimist or a pessimist?; is the glass half full or half empty?) and quality of life outcomes. According to Wikipedia, Positive Psychology
“is concerned with eudaimonia, “the good life”, a reflection about what holds the greatest value in life – the factors that contribute to a well-lived and fulfilling life”.
Ironically, the field of Positive Psychology grew from a backlash against a 1950’s status quo, as captured by a contemporary giant of the field, Maslow 13, in 1954:
“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half.”
It turns out that although there IS some irrefutable evidence that an optimistic mind-set increases creativity, open-mindedness, social connectedness, response to stressors, resilience, and success in personal and business relationships (to name but a few), there are just as many findings enumerating the many situations in which negativity produces a superior outcome- in life-threatening crises for example (what kind of person would you want in the captain’s seat when both engines are gone?).
Once again however this field has been dogged by controversy- witness the rise and fall of ‘the positivity ratio’ which espoused the benefits of keeping a (physical, no less) tally of one’s positive vs. negative thoughts:
“The critical positivity ratio (also known as the Losada ratio or the Losada line) is a concept in positive psychology positing an exact ratio of positive to negative emotions which distinguishes “flourishing” people from “languishing” people. The ratio was proposed by Marcial Losada and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who identified a ratio of positive to negative affect of exactly 2.9013 as separating flourishing from languishing individuals in a 2005 paper in American Psychologist 14. “
Generally dismissed as almost laughable, a more serious and darker side of positivity was yet to emerge- ‘the tyranny of positivity’- from the research of Barbara Held 5.:
“By ‘the tyranny of positivity’ (TPA), I mean that our culture has little tolerance for those who can’t smile and look on the bright side in the face of adversity. Even in cases of profound loss, people are supposed to get over their sadness within weeks, if not sooner. The TPA has two component parts: First, you feel bad about whatever pain has come your way, then you are made to feel guilty or defective if you can’t be grateful for what you do have, move forward [or] focus on the positives. This is the double punch, and it’s the second part that does the most serious damage.”
It is from here however, where further attempts to navigate the truth start to become mired in an epistemological swamp. Witness the same author’s attempt to summarise a published work:
“This article explores three ways in which the positive psychology movement’s construction and presentation of itself are negative. First, the negative side is construed as the negative side effects of positive psychology’s dominant, separatist message. Second, the negative side is construed as the negativity that can be found within the positive psychology movement…… (a) negativity about negativity itself and (b) negativity about the wrong kind of positivity, namely, allegedly unscientific positivity…”
Really ? Negativity about the wrong kind of Positivity?
Improve Your Positivity
Herein I admit defeat and am reduced to offering as a meagre consolation some ‘helpful hints’ which may or may not be of some use navigating the minefield of positivity rhetoric:
- Whenever possible, hold your thoughts (better still your patterns of thought) up to this test-
“There is no good or bad, but that thinking maketh it so. 15. “
– AND, replace your ‘inner coach’ with a psychologist skilled in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which aims to deconstruct and redress the ‘cognitive distortions’ which, for many (if not most) of us, have crept into and threaten to dominate our daily lives.
- Read a novel- I’m talking ‘the classics’ here (according to your taste)-
Dostoyevesky, Camus, Beckett, Hesse, Carlyle, de Beauvoir, Ionescu, Kafka, Joyce, White, Satre, Orwell, Huxley, the Brontes’, Camus, Hardy, Woofe, Solzhenitsyn etc
– these will challenge your every-day perspectives and encourage grounded reflection.
- Acknowledge that there are no short-cuts to happiness- expend energy exercising and eating well in favour of affirmations, visualisations, and other supposed quick-fixes.
- Ridenhour, C. et al. (1988). Don’t Believe the Hype. Def Jam/Columbia/CBS Records.
- Sweeny, K. (2017). The Downsides of Positivity. The British Psychological Society. The Psychologist. Feb 2017 pp. 30-34.
- Peale, N.V. (1952). The Power of Positive Thinking. New York, Prentice-Hall.
- Mitchell, M. (2016). The Tyranny of Positive Thinking Can Threaten Your Health and Happiness.Newsweek, 09/15/16.
- Held, B. S. (2004). The Negative Side of Positive Psychology. Hum. Psychol., 01/01/2004
- Barsky, A. & Zyphur, M. (2012). Negative Reports of Positive Psychology Show Ignorance Isn’t Bliss.The Conversation. October 5, 2012.
- Lilienfeld, S.O. (2011). Can Positive Thinking Be Negative ? Scientific American. May 1, 2011.
- Alexander, H. (2012). Thinking Negative- a Backlash against the Cult of Optimism. Daily Life, Sep 1, 2012.
- Bruce, J. (2013). How Positive Thinking Creates More Problems than it Solves. Entrepreneurs (Forbes), Nov 19, 2013.
- Beard, A. (2015). The Happiness backlash. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2015.
- Brinkmann, S. (2017) …The Power of Saying No! Daily Mail Australia, Mon Jul 10th, 2017
- Burns, R. (1786). Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Kilmarnock, John Wilson.
- Maslow, A.H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York, Harper.
- Fredrickson BL, Losada MF (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. Am Psychol. 60 (7): 678–86.
- Shakespeare, W. Act 2, Scene 2, p. 11