Yep, you’d better be happy and content, or the happiness police will get ya. Really, sometimes I get fed up with all the plastic smiles surrounding me, the ubiquitous call to a “can do” attitude, the mantra of “cheer up, think positive”, to make everything alright.
All this happiness makes me sad. Really. Even when I go to the doctor, a place where sick, unhappy people gather to get their illness treated, I’m surrounded by brochures with smiling faces accompanied by some joyful text about how product X brought happiness back into their lives. Rationally we all know this is nothing more than an advertisement strategy; subconsciously connect your product with positive feelings, and customers are more likely to buy it. That’s why all commercial messaging is centered around painting an exaggerated positive image to the point that taking a sip of Coca Cola paints an almost orgasmic expression on the face of the drinker.
At work, when I don’t have a particularly good day and don’t participate in communal efforts like meetings or team excursions as much as management would like, I’m told to be more positive. When I’m sick, everybody tells me to just think positive, and everything will be fine. I’m glad I don’t use Facebook, because I know most of the blogs there are full of the people’s best moments in life, painting a picture far more positive than reality. And don’t get me started on the avalanche of self-help books that are supposed to aid in building a more positive outlook on life… “How Positive Thinking Can Transform Your Life Now” and “The Power of Positive Thinking” are but two examples of the endless suggestions I get when searching for “positive thinking” on Amazon.
This is madness. Walking around in modern society can almost make one feel guilty, or stupid even, when not feeling happy. Paired with the other mantra, the one about personal responsibility, we are made to believe that if you’re not happy, you must have done something wrong, made a bad choice somewhere. In any case, no one is to blame for your lack of happiness but yourself. So you decide to play along and nod and smile when the boss firmly asks you not to spoil the meeting with your sad face. When asked how you’re doing, everything is going great. But in the meanwhile you’re doing something very unhealthy; you mask your true feelings and thereby rob yourself and the other to connect in a meaningful way.
The ubiquitous message of positive thinking is dictated in a concerted effort from our governments and the biggest corporations. Essentially it’s psychological warfare; the relentless barrage of happy people depicted in advertisements is not directed at you to make you feel happy. On the contrary: all these happy people are here to make you feel unhappy. It’s the oldest trick of capitalism to always make you want more, because if you actually achieve a state of happiness, you won’t spend any more money on becoming happy. Hence the “this is better than sex” face after consuming product X. Yep, happiness is a choice, and you too can choose to buy our product!
Another thing to keep in mind is that from a very young age we’ve been thought that the more effort you put into something, the greater the rewards will be. It’s this basic mechanism that makes us want to put more effort into becoming happy. “If I just try a bit harder to think positive, I’ll be happy”, and when that doesn’t work like it was advertised, we blame ourself, we tried and didn’t make it. In a piece by Harvard psychologist Susan David I heard something that broke my heart. Not because it was exceptionally sad, but because I know this thing happens every day and is done with the best intentions but nevertheless causes a lot of emotional pain.
She describes how cancer patients on their death beds are constantly reminded to just think positive, to just believe everything will be alright, and how it’s likely that these people die with the thought they were somehow responsible. One of these patients came up with the title of this post, “The Tyranny Of Positivity”… Below is a short 5 minute video of Susan David explaining how forcing positivity can create despair. Real positivity in my opinion is not to mask or otherwise betray your true emotions. It’s okay to not be happy most of the time, that’s never been what life’s all about.