Why I’m fed up with being positive

So many people in the world now seem to be in pursuit of happiness. Worryingly that seems to be perceived to be something that primarily requires us to rework our ‘self’ with all of those self-help books I’ve complained about before; or achieve with very short-term therapy in which you don’t, God forbid, have the opportunity to get dependent on your therapist, even though every one of us, therapists included, are dependent on someone or something. And if you don’t achieve happiness I suspect the conclusion will not be anything to do with the difficulties that you have faced in your life- the traumas of childhood, the struggles of poverty, the lack of meaningful employment or the stigma that you face for being ‘depressed’. No, I am beginning to fear that in this age of relentless positivity the conclusion will be that you simply haven’t been smiling hard enough.

If there is a truly positive place in the world it is America. People serving you in shops and restaurants (mostly) smile at you and wish to ‘have a nice day’ (although the young man in the fish shop in Orkney wished me that today too- sadly). For those of us more cynical Brits who spend time in the USA (like Ruth Whippman in in her recent book ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’) it can be difficult to come to terms with a place where everyone seems to be so determined to find happiness by one means or another. In my favourite bookshop, the Elliott Bay Book Company on the top of Capitol Hill in Seattle, which by the way has a marvelous ice cream shop nearby, I found that the personal development shelves where people go to seek instruction in happiness, have now been relabeled simply as ‘self’. On the top of this section there is now label which simply said ‘self overstock’ which may or may not be intended to be ironic. I didn’t purchase anything, though I did buy a large vanilla cone from next door, which provided some relatively short-lived but exquisite pleasure.

I find the current vogue for dishonestly reframing everything in a positive way really irritating. We are not allowed to have problems any more only strengths.

Well that’s fine. I know I am a resourceful and resilient individual thank you very much with an excellent standing in the community. But can you help me with the fact that my electricity’s been cut off. That’s a problem not a bloody strength. And since I lost my job I’ve been feeling really down and I’ve had no money for 6 weeks while they sort out my benefits. I don’t mind you saying they are problems, because its true, they are, and I need some help.

This persistent and problematic level of positivity seems to have entered almost every aspect of mental health care. I suspect it wouldn’t bother me so much if it was balanced with an acknowledgement that people have real life difficulties that for which they do really need the help of others, especially mental health and social care services. And I have a suspicion that its all really about people becoming more ‘self-sustaining’ and cheaper to run.

The current wave of positivity began with the rise of the Positive Psychology movement almost two decades ago, led by the American psychologist Martin Seligman, previously better known for having come up with the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe what happens when people feel powerless to change their lives for the better- and proposed as one of the psychological theories for how we get depressed. In her wonderful book Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich ably convinces the reader that the ‘positive thinking’ movement has not only pervaded almost every aspect of our world in the 21st century through the influence it has had on business and economic theories, but that it has also done a considerable amount of harm. We have been encouraged to believe that by thinking in ways akin to making magical wishes, we can improve our lot. That by the repetitive act of reading daily ‘affirmations’ and writing gratitude letters to express how we feel about what is positive in our lives we can increase our sense of ‘wellbeing’. Even that by thinking positively we can avoid death from cancer.

Even though the evidence for positive psychology remains weak  when viewed against what we know about other kinds of psychological treatments (and in the case of beating cancer, non-existent), it has consumed all in its path- perhaps supported by the extraordinarily powerful marketing that has accompanied it. Those who have developed it have become gurus and then very successful business people. As Ruth Whippman points out, their expertise is now being purchased to bully the unemployed into feeling better about their job prospects. And positive psychology has found its natural bedfellow in the Recovery movement where there is a similar degree of evangelical positivity about the future prospects of a person struggling with mental health problems. In the recent book Wellbeing, Recovery and Mental Health’  which ‘brings together two bodies of knowledge on wellbeing and recovery’ the authors describe a type of positive psychotherapy for people with severe mental health problems including such strategies as ‘savouring’ (I’m not sure what that means), gratitude letters, and recognizing your signature strengths; once again without providing much good evidence of its effectiveness  other than those who took part had very positive views of the programme. I do hope that was enough for them.

I’m finding all this unwarranted and dishonest positivity quite depressing. Am I alone? Or is this just another instance of my unfortunate learned helplessness?

18 thoughts on “Why I’m fed up with being positive”

  1. I am very grateful for this post. I agree with you. I don’t ‘live in pain’, I suffer. And I don’t find the experience enriching hoping that will never go away, so it keeps on enriching me and my life. No, I really wish I could wake up tomorrow and forget all that ‘enriching’.

    Life can be very difficult for very many people. I, for one, would occasionally like someone to stop and tell me that they understand (they don’t, but at least they try) how challenging getting up can be.

    I’m very pleased I’m not alone in disliking all that syrup. It’s nauseating.

  2. Reading this fascinating post reminded me of a phrase that often popped up into my mind when I was bedridden by (postpartum bipolar-related) treatment-resistant bipolar depression.

    The phrase: “The tyranny of a beautiful day”

    I don’t know who coined it; I searched online to no avail, but I remember always feeling incredibly guilty when I was depressed. To be bedridden on a gorgeous California day because of bipolar depression was my version of hell.

    I felt I should be out there being a mom & wife, being productive, but I couldn’t do any of that because I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.

    And I think that phrase “the tyranny of a beautiful day” epitomizes the dark side of the positive psychology movement. If we aren’t able to be positive, no matter how hard we want to be because our brains are somehow stuck, no amounbt of positive psychology is going to help us.

    Interestingly enough, when I visited a link for “Founding fathers of the positive psychology movement” I noticed they were all men. Please, I don’t mean to offend anyone male who’s reading this comment, but that in itself is a bit odd.


    All in all, I’m not really feeling drawn to exploring positive psychology. I’d rather be out in nature or with my dog and not pressuring myself to plaster a philosophy upon my soul that will only make me feel more negative.

    1. Indeed. Somewhere I read a comment that there were so many fathers that the mother, whoever she was, must have been kept very busy. I think it was in Ruth Whippman’s book.
      Thanks Dyane

  3. Great post, Linda.
    I grew up in the States, in a family where emotional perfectionism (always be a Pollyanna, look on the bright side, the show must go on..) was a trait instilled in us by our ever positive mother, to serve as a cloak to hide my father’s severe depressive episodes. It made it very hard to ever open up about our needs as kids, as we constantly heard how our mother was ‘a saint’ and ‘the most positive person in the world’. I still suffer with it at times but have learned to use it when it’s helpful and switch it off when necessary. My kids and husband would say that I still suffer from it. Arghh!

  4. This has rung so many bells with me. Having gone through the process of admission, treatment and discharge from community mental health services over the period of the last 5 years, I became heartily sick of the ‘think positive thoughts’ mantra. I know I am a caring, passionate and empathetic person. I am affected by the situations that affect my fellow human being, the ‘big’ news stories, and the ‘little’ daily indignities that people have to suffer. To be told ‘not to think of them’ or to be grateful that I am not in their situation, completely misunderstands who I am as a person. Suffering is part of human life, I do object to the sort of league table of suffering that can exist, the whole ‘your suffering is worse than mine’ mind set. Of course the suffering of the people in war and famine torn countries is horrific, but then for the person who is waiting for a benefit claim, who has no money, food etc, their life to, at that time is horrific. One of the sadest things about being human for me, is that it seems that people and humanity is sometimes at its most loving, caring, creative, and supportive when responding to suffering, almost as if suffering needs to be present before we can connect with each other. I have always been very ‘sniffy’ of the American pursuit of happiness, as if that is the ultimate goal in life. One of my tutors described happiness as flourishing, and this description sits easier with me. To enable others to flourish, I may have to sacrifice some of what I have, to enable me to flourish I need time and space to work out what that means, and doesn’t necessarily follow a particular ‘model’ of recovery. Thank you for exploring some of the realities of positivity and generating some thinking in me.

  5. Reminds me of the Lego movie with its theme tune ‘Everything is Awesome’!!

    Seriously though, it means a lot that someone of your stature is making these points, and articulating so powerfully things that certainly go round in my head a lot. There is a tyranny of positivity that exists and as far as i’m concerned it’s clearly just a new way to stigmatise people who are struggling and blame them for their lot. I found it amusing when you described it as being like believing in magic, that if you somehow believe that something is true or will be true this means it will somehow come to pass. Hit the nail on the head there!

    1. I was practicing as a Social Worker in the early 1990’s in the UK, when Brief Solution Focused Therapy burst onto the scene. It was touted as a way of working with deeply entrenched family problems such as neglect, abuse, and addiction in just 10 sessions. Hurrah said the bean counters, all problems solved in 10 sessions, no longer will SW’s be engaged in long term work for months sometimes years with families. Even more scary was the ideology that if the family didnot change in the 10 sessions, this would be evidence enough to seek removal of the child and court proceedings. All SW’s were sent on the training. The training always got stuck on the use of the ‘miracle’ question, the ‘if you woke up tomorrow and your problem did not exist, describe your day to me, what would you do?’. This approach firmly put the ‘problem’ onto the adults in the family, it ignored issues such as institutionalised racisim and sexism, poverty, disease and crime. Whilst it is true that something needed to change within the families I worked with, describing miracles was not helpful, it was disingenuous and insulting. For a child who was being bullied at school because of their ethnicity, it was cruel. Many SW’s refused to use it, in its purest form, adapting the techniques to suit the situations. I also know that we all resisted strongly the tick box culture of questionnaires. The courts, quite rightly, were appalled and woe betide any social worker who brought up ‘miracle’ questions as evidence of intervention! BSFTherapy is still about, in different forms, it’s techniques were even tried on me when I was in the grip of a major depressive episode due to an undiagnosed thyroid problem. Explaining to the therapist that getting out of bed was a miracle didn’t go down too well and needless to say I then got the label of being ‘difficult’. Sigh.

  6. I lost a work colleague recently, who seemingly took his own life because he probably felt like he had no other choice. Weeks leading up to his suicide there were a number of people (including myself) who reached out to him, offering support and advice on dealing with his low mood and negative feelings toward himself.
    My colleague was convinced he was physically unwell, to the point were he had undergone 2 scans to prove his theory. Both scans came back clean and 2 days later he chose not to exist in this world anymore.
    It was almost like he needed evidence that he wasn’t well to prove to others he’s not just faking it.

    The trouble is, and one of the reasons I’m writing this post is because, we knew he wasn’t well (mentally) and we offered as much support and advice as an untrained person could. But it wasn’t enough, and even more unnerving is that it may have actually made him worse. He wouldn’t seek professional help, no matter how beneficial we told him it could be.

    The guilt I feel now is so bad and I know I’ll never know if we I actually made him feel worse about himself by telling him things like “these feelings are only temporary mate” and “every moment we live is an opportunity to turn things around”?!

    I remember the low mood I felt when I was going through a divorce and I remember my friends, colleagues and family telling me to be positive and you’ll snap out of it and no, it didn’t help and yes, it made me feel like I was a beardon to them. I just hope that that the advise I gave my colleague was not as patronising, especilly when I could appreciate (to a degree) how he was feeling.

    I am going to deal with this by learning more about mental illnesses. If someone had a broken leg I could easily advise them to go to the hospital as they need a cast setting to help them heal; and I’m not a doctor. Why don’t I (probably the majority of people) know what to do when it I come across a person with depression?!

    Was there a chance to save my colleague? No, I doubt the people who surrounded him had enough knowledge to have helped him. That doesn’t mean there won’t be, and I think real people sharing real stories and spreading knowledge will go along way into changing this.

    Thank you for your post, it has helped.

  7. I am currently reading “Tigerish Waters”, selected writings of Sophie Reilly. In it there is a piece from Louise MacNeice’s “Entirely”. Reading all the posts, it resonates with how I have experienced them.

    And if the world were black or white entirely,
    And all the charts were plain,
    Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
    A prism of delight and pain,
    We might be surer where we wished to go,
    Or again we might be merely
    Bored but in brute reality there is no
    Road that is right entirely.

  8. i think that learning to think positively can be dangerous because it can make you believe that you have an attitude problem in the face of adversity when you want to signal to others you are in pain.
    I think it can be a way of people not offering more useful types of support because they don’t want to, aren’t motivated or are intolerant of distress. Maybe they find a persons distress shameful, embarrassing or threatening and so they have to micromanage the environment around them, in this case using a vehicle called positive psychology.
    I am going to torment people by sobbing now.

  9. I agree too. I am also fed up with being positive, reading positive, writing positive and talking positive. Good post. Glad to know that I am not alone. Thanks.

  10. I am glad to read this pithy well written article on a pet hate of mine. I recently saw a talented but depressed musician unable to make eye contact with his audience. I learned he had been to a ‘life coach’ (a person who’d been spectacularly unsuccessful in life), and had a pushy American step mum. They pumped him up and sent him on a huge tour. Whilst technically able the negative reviews of his performance set of his depression. The coach is full of quotes and platitudes, all the while selling himself. In reading them I sense a passive aggression. The problem with positivity is the dark side. Human beings have emotions, forcing yourself to be upbeat is unnatural, and the negative feelings come out somehow. It’s like these people live seeing one half of themselves while burying the unpleasant parts. They seem lopsided not fully human.

    I think denying problems, which is how I see the positivity evangelicals, is a great way to avoid improving anything. The roads aren’t bad, its your attitude. People so brainwashed apply these principles to everything, and lack the ability to discriminate.

    I’m all for owning your shadow side, taking a balanced view and accepting that you have ups and downs. Negativity isn’t always bad positivity isn’t always good.

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