I had a great conversation recently with someone about the current trend of positivity. And how its kinda stupid.
Ok – let me be clear first off. Positivity is GOOD. It is. Positivity is important and it is the foundation that I have built my life upon.
Like most things, the movement to educate people on positivity, and positive thinking started out good. There is good research there. Shawn Achor is one of my absolute favorites, and one of the people leading the charge, using research he’s gleaned from years of practice and scientific study (at Harvard). Here’s his absolutely fantastic TED talk. I watch it about every 3 months when I need a recharge (then I watch Glennon Doyle Melton’s TED talk. You can watch both in about 30 minutes and I really think you should).
Shawn Achor has several books available – I have the first two, ‘The Happiness Advantage’ and ‘Before Happiness.’ They are not only extremely informative, but FUN TO READ. I have talked about them so frequently that my husband had no choice but to get on board. He has
stolen borrowed my copies and they now live at work with him. He uses them for team presentations.
Plus, one time I commented on Shawn Achor’s Facebook page and he commented back, so we are friends now.
Ok. Let me make my point here, before I get too far down the rabbit hole.
POSITIVITY IS GOOD. However, like most things American, we have oversimplified it in an attempt to make it quick, cheap, and easy. So the study of positive psychology and real happiness has been dumbed down to ‘just be happy all the time and always find the good in things because everything happens for a reason.’
First, I totally disagree with the platitude that ‘all things happen for a reason.’ Totally disagree. Tell that to someone who has lost a loved one. Or is facing a devastating diagnosis. No, not all things happen ‘for a reason.’ This is the way we attempt to avoid hard emotions. Instead, try this on – ‘you can create meaning out of any circumstance.’ What I mean is this – we have agency in our own lives. Good and bad things will happen – and we can choose to create meaning from those things. The meaning we create shapes our lives (check out Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl – one of the pillars of modern psychology and the father of existentialism). One person with a terminal diagnosis might devote themselves to raising awareness. Another might devote themselves to living their best life for the time that remains. Or a hundred other things. They create meaning from their circumstance, and whatever meaning they choose shapes their life. One is not greater than the other.
Second, positivity has nothing to do with being happy all the time.
Ok – so I have established that ‘being happy all the time’ is the WRONG takeaway from the positive psychology movement. So what should we take away?
Ahhh. Now we come to the crux of what I mean. True happiness and positivity is about fully experiencing the world around you. The good and the bad. But more, its about how we process that world.
When I found out my job was being eliminated, I was devastated (even though I was also totally burned out). My safe, steady life was gone. Ahead was all this uncertainty. For many of us, uncertainty is the worst possible outcome. Worse, even, than the bad stuff. Bad stuff we can prepare for. We can take action against. Uncertain is a threat.
But, I am also a firm believer in positive thinking and have put that belief into practice for years. So, after giving myself time and permission to feel all the feelings, I took a deep breath and said ‘In two years, I will look at this as the best thing that could have ever happened.’ As it happens, that was just over two years ago. It was the best thing that could have happened. I was burned out and was physically breaking down. Does that mean everything was easy? Nope, nopity nope nope. It’s been two years of watching the budget really closely, of cutting out non-necessities, of being more worried about money. Its included the stress of starting a business and learning to be ok with some uncertainty. However, by making the decision that this was going to be a good thing, it freed my brain from the energy of worrying about what might happen, and allowed me to focus on making it a good thing. That’s positivity. Its standing knee deep in sh*t and remembering to laugh while you keep firm in your mind the picture of the way it will be.
There’s no ‘right way’ to do this. Its not about being correct or doing things ‘the best’ way. Its about finding resources from many places. Its taking the bits that resonate with you and leaving the parts that don’t. Sometimes I will read a whole book and take away one thought or idea. That’s worth it to me.
So honestly, you can take your ‘be happy all the time and only pay attention to the good stuff’ and strap it to a rocket filled with C4 (I have been watching a lot of Mythbusters).
Pay attention. Life is happening around you and you have to take it all in. Then you decide how you give your energy out. That’s the real key to positive psychology – making an active choice how to experience the good and the bad. Both ‘Before Happiness’ and ‘The Happiness Advantage’ talk about ways to train your brain. They are simple and straightforward ideas as simple as writing down three things you are grateful for each day (different things) in order to train your brain to scan your surroundings for the good. Its reducing the ‘noise’ (Before Happiness) and focusing our energy on improving by paying attention to ways we are successful.
So, I guess what I’m saying is live REAL. REALLY see the people and things around you. Feel whatever you feel about them. Sometimes the thing that breaks your heart is the thing that spurs you to greatness.
When I take all this in, here’s what I come up with. Real happiness is standing where you are supposed to stand in the universe. So many people are so unhappy – and are not doing anything to change that. Maybe unhappiness (not to be confused with sadness or grief – which are different)is nudge to make a change. Maybe its a constant reminder that we aren’t where WE want to be. But – like unhappiness, real happiness is contagious. When our light shines out, it lights the path for others.
Sometimes the path to happiness is through uncertainty. We need all the lights we can get.
Take care. Let’s light things up.
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