I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

by Jack on April 2011

Some aspects of self-help and personal development have come under criticism recently.

A specific area that’s received a lot of attention is the phenomenon of “positive thinking”. Some believe that this area has become a “positivity cult”, creating in its believers and practitioners an unwillingness to acknowledge lousy days, depression, loss, and other “downs” in the ongoing ups and downs that human beings experience during their adventures in the physical world.

The book Bright-Sided and other recent works by the writer and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich represent some key examples of this.

After a diagnosis of breast cancer, Ehrenreich entered conventional medical treatment, and experienced chemotherapy, radiation, and other traditional approaches. However, on the psychological and support side, she also encountered what she characterized as a “positive thinking cult”. Many breast cancer patients did not feel (or refused to admit) anger, frustration and other negative emotions, preferring to repeat positive thinking mantras and operate in what Ehrenreich described as a mindset of of denial and avoidance. In contrast, she characterizes her genuine anger and frustration with cancer as the driving force behind her will to recover.

Curious about her experience in cancer treatment, she began to investigate other areas in the self-help industry where positive thinking principles had made major inroads – for example, churches promoting prosperity theology, academic departments creating programs in positive psychology, career counseling, and motivational seminars.

Certainly, a tyranny of positive thinking is in itself may not actually be very positive. Telling people that they “should” smile more, or be happier, or think more positively often has the opposite effect. After all, who likes to be made wrong by others, for any reason?

So, given that we all seek to be happier in our lives, what’s the solution?

Is negativity the answer?

Of course, going too far in the opposite direction is not really a good idea either. A reader, “Lisa” declared to me in an email discussion that anger was more effective in motivating people (in this case, to take effective action as an activist).

Jack,

No, I don’t happen to believe someone is as good an activist when they are happy. I don’t believe that, because I have observed that happiness is essentially a state of emotional homeostasis. In other words, it’s a state of mental balance. What is balance? You’ve basically come to rest, everything is in its place and you have no reason to move unless you feel like it.

Activism requires a sense of urgency. What happy person feels urgency? Activism requires initiative. What is there to have initiative about if you already have what you want?

Declaring negative emotions “better” (or at least, more likely to inspire action) than positive ones is hardly a useful change from the “positivity cult” that Ehrenreich was criticizing in Bright-Sided. It’s the same ignorance – the only difference is that it’s flipped in the opposite direction.

It’s possible to live in a state of powerful and abiding happiness, and yet to have the will to take decisive action. The so-called happiness described by “Lisa”, above, is more like a state of moping bovine apathy than any experience of happiness that I have ever had. When people are really feeling happy, they generally want to engage with the world, to give their energy to others and to share their gifts as much as they can. This is the real source of transformational power, not anger.

While anger is not what I’d describe as an inspiring starting point for effective action, I’m not a fan of naive, groundless positivity either. Denial of the “shadow side” is not an effective way to handle situations or get things done in the world. After all, any solution that’s really effective is almost certainly firmly aligned with reality.

My advice? Use spiritual and psychological technologies like yoga, meditation, NLP, prayer, breathwork, or journaling, in order to design for yourself the mental state that you want to experience. Or get some coaching or therapy if you think that help from a professional would be beneficial to your inner work.

And then go out and work on creating the world that you want to experience in the future, whether that means building a business, doing activism and non-profit work, teaching children, or whatever else you have in mind.

But never make your own peace of mind or your inner well-being conditional on getting some kind of “outcome” or “results” in the world. And don’t depend on a particular emotion or state – whether it be anger or happiness – to motivate you to work toward those results.

So what’s the solution?

Here’s the thing – it’s not that positive thinking is the problem, or negative thinking is the problem. The fact is that thinking itself is the problem. Fortunately, it’s also the solution.

Our thoughts create our experience of reality. Happy thoughts tend to lead to happy feelings, anxious thoughts tend to lead to anxious feelings, and so forth. And yet, for all the obviousness of such a statement, many people don’t realize this.

It’s not so much that people “should” have all positive thoughts, all the time – as though that were even possible. It’s more that when people realize that their thoughts create their experience of reality, then they can recognize the essential unreality of what they are perceiving. People don’t perceive the world directly – they perceive their thoughts about the world.

As a result, in an elevated state of consciousness, a person is able to see things as they really are. They see through the reflexive and illusory nature of most of their thoughts, and exist in a balanced and peaceful state that is untouched by the rapid up and down of the monkey mind’s thought-stream. This is the true state of abiding happiness – not a temporary “high” or short-lived excitement, but an enduring space of equanimity and inner peace.

On the other hand, in a lower state of consciousness, a person treats the involuntary stream of thoughts as something real. A positive thought is experienced as something to be chased down and held (“it feels good!”), and a negative thought is treated as something to be denied, avoided, or pushed away (“it feels bad!”). From the Buddhist standpoint, craving and aversion are two sides of the same coin – and the roots of suffering.

A feeling of anxiety or sadness is much more bearable when it’s accompanied by the realization that it was just caused by anxious or sad thoughts, that it’s temporary, and that it’s not something intrinsic or real. And on the other side, a feeling of elation or excitement can be appreciated with gratitude, with the recognition that it too is impermanent, and that clinging to those feelings will be painful and not get the results desired.

In either case, from the higher perspective of an elevated consciousness, both “good” and “bad” feelings can be seen from the enduring standpoint of intrinsic security, inner peace, and balanced mind – the standpoint that understands and experiences all thoughts and feelings as impermanent, and clings to none. From this point of view, a person can most effectively and directly take the actions that they want to take, work to change the things that they want to change, and create the things that they want to create.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Duff April 4, 2011 at 17:20

To give some support for your position, the Dalai Lama is a lifetime, serious activist who’s written several popular books on happiness, and forgives China despite the Tibetan genocide.

I think many young activists especially find anger to be key to effective activism, but older activists often recognize that if your motivation is primarily from anger, it can lead to burnout and avoiding important compromises.

That said, a lot of people are out of touch with their anger, or deny or repress the information that activists aim to make us aware of because they are afraid of their own anger and sadness. Ideally activism makes us aware of important information that is being left out of the public awareness so that we can make a change in direction of justice.

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Jack April 4, 2011 at 18:49

Good point about the Dalai Lama.

Emotions are funny things. The mindful approach of “Hmm, anger is here. What is it a response to?” seems to be the most useful. It will ideally point back to something that we can take tangible action on.

The denial / repression approach – “no anger here! [tight, tense smile]” – and the venting approach, with lots of ranting and shouting, aren’t likely to point back to the root cause the way the mindful approach can.

Anger and outrage about injustice can definitely drive people to action and keep them in action. But it’s still stressful and uncomfortable for anyone to constantly live their life that way, even if they are getting results.

And yeah, some people would prefer to live in denial of the awkward information that sometimes surfaces through activist work – “my country could never do a thing like that”.

This goes way beyond activist work, of course. Claiming that anger is “necessary” in solving (e.g.) supplier problems in a business, or dealing with a difficult person in a community group is similarly misguided.

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Jacq April 9, 2011 at 12:25

It’s been my experience (I don’t know if this is generally true), but when I was younger, I would follow the m.o. of whipping myself into a state of extreme discontent with the status quos in life in order to make a change. It took a long time to realize that I could make changes without being unhappy at all.

Say if you don’t really like your job, start telling yourself all the things you hate about it and how it’s soooo horrible and you MUST get out of there right now because it’s sucking your very SOUL, blah blah blah. I have read quite a few younger bloggers that do this kind of thing.

As I’ve gotten older though (and with a lot of buddhist / stoic / CBT / REBT training, reading and contemplation), I have switched it up to be happy as possible with whatever IS, trying to change things if I can and letting go if I can’t. No moaning and groaning and trying to make myself miserable in the process. Having said that, it means that it takes me a lot longer to make changes nowadays because I kind of go slowly and go with the flow. I’m ok with that. :-) Sorry Tony Robbins. No MASSIVE action here.

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Jack April 9, 2011 at 14:35

@Jacq
Thanks for sharing your story. It’s definitely possible to “leverage” spiky, hard-edged emotions like anger, hatred, or shame, in order to make yourself do things. Or to do them faster and more aggressively than you otherwise would.

The question is, of course, is it worth doing things this way? What matters more, operating in a way that prioritizes personal well-being, or driving toward “the goal”, regardless of the impact on your inner peace?

Like you, I’ve found that by focusing on “inside-out” living, I’ve been productive and gotten goals completed, while experiencing happiness and well being.

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Rob April 11, 2011 at 06:27

Jack,
Your last paragraph in the above comment ring true for me.
Also, who do you want to spend time with if we break it into positive and negative? I choose positive every time.
I believe in positive acting. It isn’t enough for me to receive positive info and then verbalize. I must action it out in my daily life to be empowered.
Live it LOUD!

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Nacho Jordi April 13, 2011 at 12:31

Pretty intense post here, which rises a lot of interesting questions. Regarding only the ‘feel-good philosophies’ in the first part, my stance is that it is important to keep a positive stance, but one must be careful with the difference between self-guidance and repression. I mean, some people tries to be so good at ‘thinking only positive’ that they become sort of stiff… I don’t think an excess, of any kind, can ever be good.
That’s my 2 cents. Very interesting post.

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Jack April 14, 2011 at 10:06

Hi Nacho, thanks for your comment!

I agree, when optimism becomes tyranny and denial it’s not so helpful. Negative emotions arise and pass away with moods and body cycles, and it’s important to notice that they are present. Without judgment.

An aggressive “should” – such as “can’t feel bad now, gotta be positive” can work to counteract an inconvenient bad mood here and there. Sometimes you just don’t have time to frown and process whatever is going on. Of course, ongoing denial of negative emotions is pretty unhealthy.

That’s one reason why time alone or with trusted advisers is so important – you don’t have to deny the reality of your emotional state. “What I resist, persists”, and all that…

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