You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fist-pumping intellectual with a Cheshire grin spouting out positive psychology.
This is precisely why I’m so skeptical of the self-improvement & positive psychology niches.
I find myself inundated, day-to-day, with messages about how if I can just think positive, I can change anything about my world. I can go from fat to thin, poor to rich, unpopular to popular, etc., all if I just put out my intention.
If you believe it, you can make it happen! Turn that frown upside down! When life gives you lemons, make lemon aid!
And so it goes.
In general, I think it’s wonderful to find something positive in sucky situations (in some situations it’s truly necessary so you don’t off yourself . But in order to effect positive change – in yourself, others & the world – you have to do more than believe, wish, set the intention, will it, smile, be positive etc. And, in fact, I think putting your energy into trying to manipulate your feelings is more harmful than it is helpful. Or productive. What I find with a lot of the “positive thinking” crowd is ritualized homogenization; an acceptable form of brainwashing.
One of the most valuable things my boyfriend ever said to me was (and the list is long, trust me), “if you feel it, it matters, it’s real.” This was his response to me when I was fighting back tears, wringing my hands and telling him that I was sorry for feeling something even though I knew it was illogical. I was ready for him to smirk, pat me on the back. I thought he might break out a white board and chart the ways my feelings were rooted in a logical fallacy. or a straw man argument. or some other fancy word political commentators like to use to downplay the very real and important nature of our feelings and perceptions.
Ever since then, I’ve stopped apologizing for my feelings. I’ve become conscious of my impulse to halt any negativity, to just see “the bright side” even when all I want to do is play in the grey, swollen clouds and play a tiny violin for myself. Now, I just play in the clouds for as long as I need to.
But I’m not immune to others – especially marketers, self-help gurus, “make it rich!” talking heads, and many people in my field of expertise – telling me, and everyone else, how we should interact with others on a day-to-day basis.
I saw this chart on how to increase your “likability,” written by Guy Kawasaki, famed marketer & NY Times best-selling author, and had a good laugh. I joked with my boyfriend that I’d now greet everyone with a “real” smile so that my eyes crinkle. And that I’d find a way to temperature-control my hands so that my handshakes make me more likable. It was instantaneously clear that I became less likable, at least to my boyfriend, who loves who I am authentically.
Authenticity is the most likable characteristic about anyone. And when charts like this come out that tell you to be authentic by doing something in a particular way, they’re really telling you not to be authentic, they’re telling you to fake authenticity (no matter how much they tell you otherwise!). I understand that if you walk into a room and are frowning, this may provide an initial barrier to getting people to like you. But who the fuck cares? If you have something smart to say, people will like you because you’re smart not because you immediately put them at ease with a fake smile (which people can see through, ESPECIALLY if you fake-smile so big just to get those crow wrinkles as Kawasaki advises). People ultimately care about the value you provide, not whether you have crow’s feet when you smile, or whether you sweat when you shake hands. People who do care are clearly not people you should care to impress.
At the prompting of someone else, I read Who Moved My Cheese? This is the quintessential book for management to give to its subordinates. A “grin and bear it” message dresses up in positive psychology to make the reader feel partly responsible, and guilty, for things they cannot control. Basically, two mice and two dwarf humans exist in a maze where their desire – as represented by the cheese – changes location. The lesson is to never count on the “cheese” being where it was last (don’t get complacent). But there are many more subtle messages about personal responsibility and your duty to corporate America.
Does your life suck? It’s your fault! You’re just not flexible, adaptable, or positive enough. If you would just change your mindset, you could be a millionaire (money seems to be the motivator for most of those entrusting their souls to self-help gurus). The entire parable was hilariously lacking. For one, it’s not really a parable because the human characters would have been characterized as mice, too, and the allegory of a maze would have actually been something motivating rather than so closely resembling “the rat race,” which is what all these books intended for middle management are about – how to survive the rat race. It was such a condescending read I was in utter disbelief that this book existed as something other than a spoof or parody.
Despite abhorring the reading I am grateful for having read it. I can think of countless spoofs I can write. The entrepreneur mouse who starts his own cheese factory. The serial killer mouse who gets rid of the others and enjoys his cheese with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Hoarder mouse keeps all the cheese. Of course, smart mouse simply gets the fuck out of the maze.
I see this positive psychology shit spouted all the time in anti-obesity circles: believe you can lose weight and you can! If you will it, it will happen!
There is little room for skepticism or dissension in positive psych circles. You will rarely hear the words, “but why?”
I get that “negative” people can suck to be around, but “negative people” should not be confused with people who are dissenters, who are introverted, or who simply do not agree with you. When you use “think positive” mantra as a way to placate people, or to prevent them from rising up or questioning the status quo, it’s really akin to propaganda. And that’s what this hyper focus on personal responsibility is – a way to shame people into believing that if they just tried harder, thought more positive thoughts (turned to religion?), they’d get what they want out of life. And if they don’t, it’s only a sign that they don’t want it bad enough or didn’t try hard enough. Forget thinking about sociopolitical, environmental and/or economic forces that shape and constrain our lives. Forget thinking about the complex stuff!
I think what we often forget is that it’s dissenters who are actually best for business and the world. Imagine if Disney and CHOA had a dissenting health advocate on their team? They wouldn’t be wasting their money on ad campaigns (and crisis communications); they’d actually be promoting health.
The world needs more dissenters. The world needs true, not feigned, authenticity.
The world needs people who seek enlightenment rather than monetary gain or social acceptance. The world needs people who are skeptical of everything passing as truth. If you’re in a fucked up situation and want to be angry, be angry! Anger can lead to positive things just as much as being positive can. The world needs people who are not afraid to feel what they feel and be who they really are. Even if it’s a little (or a lot) fucked up.
The Cranky One