The Tyranny of Positivity

Although I am passionate about mental health and believe a life well-lived is benefitted by generous portions of gratitude and remembering what is sweet in life, I believe the cultural injunction to “keep a positive attitude” is at best irksome and at worst toxic. Barbara Ehrenreich offers an interesting social, political, and economic critique of the power of positive thinking, but I want to focus on mental health and growth.

My personality does not naturally default to enthusiasm or emotional expressivity, although it’s become more so over time. And I have been the person walking down the street feeling empty, overwhelmed, or incredibly anxious for reasons I could not name or understand. More than once, I’ve been confronted by another person who has ordered me, with the friendliest hostility, to smile. “Hey, smile!” “It can’t be that bad!”

This interaction was rarely helpful, and I think had more to do with the other person’s discomfort with being around sadness or pain and not a genuine wish for my happiness. That person knew nothing about my circumstances or what kind of pain I carried around inside. At my worst, being told I had nothing to worry about caused me to feel worse because I was still so miserable. Depression and anxiety do not answer to good intentions and well-reasoned arguments.

A command to smile offers nothing that would naturally cause a smile. There is no humor, kindness, generosity, or charm, although some people are capable of creating connection, meeting another person’s eyes, and communicating these feelings while still overtly giving a command. Connection makes all the difference. If you meet eyes, smile, and communicate with presence a desire for the other person’s happiness, that generates more good will than the brief command, which can communicate an unspoken message of “smile or I will not accept you.”

There is truth that putting a smile on one’s face can lift the mood. I believe there is another truth, that setting aside one’s pain to perform happiness for another person’s comfort or satisfaction only causes further experiences of alienation and inner deadness. Chiu and Chang (2009) describe “emotional exhaustion” as a consequence of working in a field in which employers prescribe a range of emotional expression, and describe the worker’s effort to maintain this range “emotional labor.” This study focuses on the work experiences of female flight attendants, but I think it points to the emotional costs of regulated emotional expression. If we keep telling each other that we have to act happy all the time, that “acting happy” begins to drain the energy and vitality that could actually go toward being happy.

From The No Plays of Japan, Arther Waley

We are not meant to have only a narrow range of feelings. Our emotional range is our birthright and we become freer and more resilient as we allow ourselves and each other to experience and process a range of feelings. Like the stagnant pool that becomes overrun with mosquitos, feelings become toxic when they cannot move. Acting out and performing our feelings can be another form of disconnection from the inner experience. I believe we can treat our feelings with respect and curiosity, a willingness to experience and “listen to” the emotion.

EDIT: In an ironic twist, after posting this, I heard the song “Vibrations” by Zap Mama for the first time and really enjoy it. I would not necessarily back down from this post, but I would put this song in the bucket of “providing an affirming, enjoyable experience that could help someone to feel better.”

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