Someone told me recently, regarding the job search, that all I needed to do was keep looking and stay positive. (This isn’t a job related post, I swear). People really truly want to believe that things will work out for the best, that keeping a positive mindset will help, and that in the end optimism will prevail. But guess what? That’s bullshit.
Pardon my particularly strong reaction, but I’ve had some experience with the push towards positive thinking. From a personal perspective, I struggle with anxiety, a problem that often leads people to give advice like “Don’t worry” or “Think positively.” Well, no, actually, my body has a physiological reaction to certain situations and it’s actually the physical component (breathing, talking, contact) that helps the most. If I could tell my brain “Oh no, there’s no danger in this situation, you’re overreacting,” don’t you think I would have tried that?
Additionally, a large portion of my thesis revolved around the question of positive psychology and the extent to which popular media promote relentless positivity and punish negative feelings. For my research I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, which looks at the problems associated with the positivity push. And it wasn’t until I read her book that I started thinking about all the ways in which we’re constantly bombarded with messages of optimism, from the “remove negative people from your life” advice to the idea that cancer will “win” if you aren’t positive enough.
As Ehrenreich points out, the glorification of positive emotions leaves no room for expressions of real pain, doubt or sorrow, and no room for realism. When you are constantly being told that you need to look on the bright side, you can forget to consider the real world consequences.
Which brings me to this week’s opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Power of Negative Thinking.” In the piece Oliver Burkeman talks about those very issues (even mentioning Ehrenreich), making the important point that sometimes a positive mind-set isn’t everything. Sometimes, there are real reasons for why something goes well or doesn’t, and pretending that everything is going to go well because you can somehow magically will it to is irresponsible.
Oliver Burkeman writes:
A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.
He writes in such a “duh” way that you begin to wonder why the strange positivity push (and the self-help craze associated with it) still exists. It totally makes sense that people want to think they can do better, smarter, braver things all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself to be that way (hey, look at Olympic athletes). Until a certain point of course. Because at some point forced-positivity makes you blind to your own failures and unwilling to try a new solution, to ask for help, or to succumb to real emotion.
None of this is to say that you should stick with negativity all the time or that there isn’t a place for positive thinking in life. But as Burkeman points out in the article, even some of the practices we think of as positive, like Buddhism, are more balanced than we think. There is a focus in Buddhism and in meditation on a nonjudgmental consideration of sensations and emotions. The constant refrain you hear while meditating is to consider how you feel in that moment, and not try to judge or change anything, but just to be aware. Unwavering optimism leaves no room for that awareness. (Nor does, I should add, unwavering pessimism. Balance, people.)
To see an article in the mainstream media that says, “Hey, everyone, let’s consider the consequences of squashing the negative all the time” gave me a little bit of hope. What I found in my thesis was that celebrity journalism punishes sadness (particularly in women), even when such feelings might be justified, as in the case of divorce, depression or legal troubles. This article potentially represents just a miniature shift, showing that at least one more guy out there is willing to call bullshit on that idea. And while the attitudes and ideologies that show up in journalism may not change anytime soon, little shifts here and there may be able to shed some light on the strangeness of rejecting reality.
As for my job search? Yeah, maybe there is some truth to the need to stay positive. But there is also a need for me to consider the very real option that September rolls around and I still don’t have a job. I’ve begun to look at my options, considering things like becoming a nanny or taking time to travel. Because should September roll around, I’m not going to be the sucker so caught up in my own optimism that I didn’t take time to consider the What Ifs.