The Pitfalls of Forced Positivity
Two days ago I was on a plane, returning home after spending the holidays with my family in Ontario. I was feeling fairly sombre; sitting with my own thoughts for hours in the discomfort of a budget airline seat tends to encourage melancholy rumination, and the last couple of years have brought me plenty of fodder for that. At a certain point somewhere over Saskatchewan I decided to be happy. Not forever, because that’s impossible, but for a little while, to break up the tedium. So I closed my eyes, leaned back, and let myself fully immerse in the sorrow that had been hanging out at the edges of my thoughts all day. A few minutes later I was enveloped in the warm glow of something approaching euphoria.
Does that seem backwards? It isn’t. Does it seem like I’m about to sell you the One Simple Weird Trick for finding happiness? I’m not. Partly because I only know what works for me, and I’m not even an expert at that yet. Partly because there’s nothing simple about any of this. But mostly because trying to foist happiness on you is likely to make you feel even worse, and I don’t want to do that to you.
Our culture is obsessed with positivity. Self-help books selling happiness quick-fixes or law-of-attraction schemes have been around for years. The entire concept of commercial advertising is built around pointing out gaps in our happiness and then offering to fill them. Today we have social media to amplify the furore as it does best, via feelgoody quotation memes of questionable provenance and superficial insight.
Happiness does feel good, of course, and pain feels bad, so it’s understandable that we would try our best to run towards one and away from the other. And there is nothing wrong with a bit of hedonism from time to time. But the endless pursuit of gratification and the insistence on constant optimism does a pretty good job of one thing only, and that is making everyone feel miserable.
This is especially true for people who have been through real trauma. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I think it’s safe to say that telling a person who is experiencing acute emotional distress to look on the bright side is pretty obnoxiously ineffective. And though some people might never think of saying such a thing directly, this is exactly what positivity culture does – it makes us ashamed when we are unable to bounce back quickly, and leaves us feeling alienated and voiceless. No matter how hard we try, most of us cannot coerce ourselves into emotional stability through sheer will, and the fear of being shunned for our negativity compounds the anguish.
Even for those who are dealing with milder forms of distress, forced positivity does not help, at least not for long. You might be able to talk yourself (or eat, drink, shop, socialize, copulate, exercise, etc.) into bliss for a while, but the inevitable crash later on can leave you feeling even worse about yourself – because, since the positive self-talk seemed to work at first, it must be a failing on your own part that you couldn’t sustain it, right? The fact is, external pressures and expectations disrupt performance in many scenarios, and it is no different with happiness. You can’t find lasting fulfillment by performing joy for others’ benefit. And nobody can avoid pain forever.
I do in fact believe that it is possible to cultivate greater peace and contentment in life. I just think that most of us try to go about it exactly backwards. I believe that genuine, enduring happiness means fully accepting that you can’t always be happy. Fully accepting. Knowing something objectively and fully accepting it aren’t the same thing. We all know that pain is an unavoidable part of life, yet we all spend vast amounts of energy trying to escape it. We fear it because we don’t know how to handle it, and – here’s the kicker – this fear means we can’t even really enjoy the good times, because we worry about how much it will hurt when our luck turns.
When you have the tools to cope with negative emotions, that fear is diminished, and you can allow yourself to feel true enjoyment. You can’t acquire those tools by running away from pain.
So how do you acquire them? As I said before, I’m not an expert. I can only share what works for me, and I am still learning. I have not by any means reached the point where I can maintain Zen-like equanimity through trauma and major stress. I don’t know if I ever will – but I do believe I can train my brain to be happier overall.
For me, certain meditation techniques work well, though it has taken me a long time to get there. I’ve stopped feeling inadequate when I can’t empty my mind, and stopped trying to simply replace bad thoughts with good ones. Instead, when I’m plagued by difficult emotions, I invite them in and allow myself to experience them deeply. I look them full in the face. Imagine putting your hand into near-scalding water and then sort of dispassionately taking note of how the sensations feel on your skin – it’s a bit like that. Most of the time, this causes the emotions to dissipate.
Once that’s done, I have space to let the good stuff in. I remind myself that my brain has the ability to produce chemical reactions on a neurological level that cause sensations of happiness, regardless of outside stimuli. I let it do that. Sometimes it only works a little bit. The level of near-euphoria that I described above doesn’t always happen – in fact, that’s the first time since my brother’s death that I was able to get there. I don’t try to push it. Euphoria or not, I always feel better afterwards. And the more I do this, the more I feel calm and balanced from day to day.
We aren’t taught how to cope with strong emotions, despite the fact that it is unquestionably one of the most important life skills. That’s because there are so few people who would even know what to teach. We fill the knowledge void instead with vapid truisms and short-term gratification. I would like to see social media amplify a different kind of voice. I’d like to see more honesty about struggles and sadness. I would like to learn effective coping techniques from people who have had different experiences from mine. I am not afraid of my pain, or of yours.