Are there any two words more loathsome in the English language? I’m having a tough time coming up with any, because ‘think positive!’ is one of the most pernicious, obnoxious, and frustrating memes in society and culture — and it seems to be a particularly powerful force in the United States. This is not a coincidence in a country where messaging about bootstrapping your way to independence is still hammered into people from a young age — the power of positive thinking, as it were, is just another form of bootstrapping.
Relentless demands for positivity are frustrating from a number of angles, perhaps starting with the fact that they inherently place a sunny disposition and a good mood in a position of superiority to that of someone who is not feeling well or is in a bad mood. The implied suggestion is that if someone isn’t performing happiness, that person is a ‘downer,’ ruining the scene for everyone. Bad moods are treated like they’re contagious, while happy ones are not, and there’s an implication that the person with a bad mood is ruining the day for everyone. It has much more to do with the fact that exposed and naked unhappiness makes people uncomfortable, because they don’t want to be reminded of the real emotions experienced by the human beings around them.
Not everyone can be positive all the time. Some people have good reason to feel less than thrilled with the world around them, while others may simply not be interested in pretending to be happy when they’re not. Pretending to be in a good mood or acting ‘positive’ doesn’t carry any particular benefits for them other than smoothing social situations, and maybe that’s not their goal — it’s not their responsibility to make other people feel easy and comfortable, confident that everything is going just fine and there’s nothing to worry about.
Telling people to think positive tends to isolate people who are not thinking positive. It certainly doesn’t make them feel better, instead breeding shame and resentment, and it can result in forcing people into their homes or other private spaces. If the goal is genuinely to make people happier, driving them away from chances for socialisation and time spent among supportive and friendly people is not an effective way to go about it. Positive thinking and personal empowerment come about because people feel comfortable and happy, not because they’re ordered to paste smiles on their faces and fake a state of happiness.
There’s this whole meme that thinking positive will bring good things to you and you receive what you give and you need to concentrate on positivity to make good things happen in your life, but that’s not reality. Good things happen to bad people no matter what their mental state, and bad things happen to good people even if they’re thinking positive — even if they are, in fact, the kind of people who are naturally friendly and outgoing, sunny and happy. For them, it can feel crushing to be confronted with something terrible, and to realise for the first time that maybe it’s not so effortlessly easy to be positive as they think it is.
This culture is afraid of dour people. It’s afraid of people who call it like they see it. It’s afraid of people who are too tired or frustrated or exhausted to take the time to pretend to be nice in the interests of making people feel better. It’s afraid of people who don’t fake positivity and good moods but instead only express them when they’re genuinely happy. It’s a culture that feels betrayed and upset when people stray outside a very narrow define of socially acceptable moods and attitudes.
The fact is that we live in a world where, for some people, there’s not a lot to be positive about. Some people have depression and other mental illnesses that represent a massive struggle and a huge drain on their resources, creating serious boundaries to being bouncy and happy. Others are experiencing really tough stuff, sometimes leading to situational depression, and they don’t really benefit from being told they need to buck up and be positive — ‘get over it,’ is the subtextual message. Those experiencing structural oppressions may also be dealing on a daily level with a myriad of reasons not to feel very positive about the world, and there’s often considerable overlap between these categories.
We tell people to be more positive because it makes us upset to see distress, but we don’t dig down to find out why that is. Are we upset because of genuine empathy and distress at seeing other people unhappy, or do we feel uncomfortable when confronted with the distress of other people — especially when we may be partially responsible? In a culture where our actions can have profound repercussions for the people around us, everything we do has meaning and everyone we interact with is touched by what we do. When we tell people to keep thinking positive, we’re erasing the reality of what they’re experiencing, but we’re also sidestepping the possibility of our own role in it.
Sometimes people just don’t feel like playing positive to satisfy the people around them, and that’s their choice. They don’t have an obligation or requirement to perform like dancing monkeys for the benefit of people who feel unsettled by their unhappiness, or even their neutrality. Not everything is sunshine and unicorns, and that’s just how it is.
Image: Positive Thoughts, Mr. Glen, Glen Scott, Flickr