Friday, 14 August 2015

"Why Can't I Be Happy?" - The Dark Side of the Positive Thinking Movement

Be happy! Cheer up! You’ve got to strive towards happiness! As you trawl through shelves of self-help
Barbara Ehrenreich promoting her book Smile or Die
paperbacks, the message is the same: you’ve got to become happy. Happiness will make you live longer, improve your health and prospects, magically make everything better and perhaps even land you your dream job.

The pursuit of happiness has long been defined as a basic part of being human – it’s even a constitutional right. When you break it down, whether we’re trying to climb the career ladder, find a partner or fill our day with fun, we’re all striving towards the same goal – happiness. But is there a wrong way, or a wrong time, to strive for happiness? Could there be a dark side to this modern obsession with being happy?

Psychologists are starting to question whether actively chasing happiness might actually be causing us to become unhappier. Think about it; while there may be times that you wouldn’t expect to bring joy (such as the death of a loved one or when you lose your job), when things are going well but you just don’t feel right, you might find yourself asking “Why can’t I be happy?”

Knowing that you “should” be happy can take you even further from your goal. You might know that you’re better off than others, that you have no reason to feel down, and yet you feel frustrated, guilty and like a failure, because you haven’t yet reached that all-elusive happiness that everyone is talking about. Paradoxically, this makes you even less happy, increasing the feelings of frustration.

In one article titled “The dark side of happiness?” Gruber and colleagues ask whether there is a wrong degree of happiness, a wrong time for happiness and a wrong way to pursue it. 

As they point out, a person who goes around feeling happy all the time is bordering on psychopathic. It’s only normal to feel sadness, anger, disappointment and all those other parts of the broad human spectrum of emotion, at the appropriate time. These emotions evolved to help us survive; if you feel joy, rather than fear, as a panther runs at you, then you’re not going to last very long.

There’s a brilliant article called “The Tyranny of Happiness” by Joshua Frost that’s worth a read. As he points out – the world isn’t all wonderful and amazing, and trying to convince ourselves to be optimistic about it is unrealistic… and might lead to the kind of terrifying society depicted in “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin (or perhaps Huxley’s Brave New World).

Another book that I haven’t read yet, but sounds great, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she was plagued with messages telling her to “be positive”. Researching it heavily, she found that there is no real link between optimism and breast cancer survival; now, she is fighting against this "mandatory optimism" - how we're told that our problems are all the result of our bad attitudes, and that being positive will solve everything. You can hear her speak here.

A fixation on “being happy” can cause you to feel despair whenever a negative emotion creeps up. You start to feel like a failure, because you can’t make yourself happy. Worse, some of the research shows that those who pursue happiness are likely to feel lonelier on a daily basis. One explanation is that a Western approach to pursuing happiness focuses on personal success and status, rather than on social harmony (as in more collectivist societies). It can also be that, when you’re telling yourself that you have to be happy, stressful events knock you much harder.

So what can you do if you want to be happy, and chasing happiness just makes you feel worse? The solution presented is the skill of accepting negative emotions without letting them rule you.

“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” Bruce Lee

When you try to fight your negative emotions – be they anger, fear, disappointment or shame – you expend more energy and end up feeling worse. Practicing mindfulness means that you accept your negative emotions, rather than trying to suppress or fight them. 

There’s a strange idea going around that being happy means being in a wonderful mood 24/7. This seems to be a cultural thing – perhaps we can blame Hollywood for plying us with images of “happy ever after”. In East Asian cultures, for example, feeling “positive emotions” is nowhere near as important as social acceptance, achievement, or a sense of meaning.

Here’s a little mindfulness/visualisation exercise you can try the next time you feel any “negative” emotions popping up:

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Start breathing slowly. Focus on gently inhaling into your diaphragm, and exhaling through your mouth.  For a few breaths, focus on nothing else – listen to how they sound, experience how they feel, look – if you must – at the patterns behind your closed eyelids. Just let yourself be, as yourself, as you are. Imagine that the negative feeling is a cloud, floating by. Let it sweep over you, and feel how it changes your body – it might increase your heart rate, make your stomach clench, bring tears to your eyes. This is the emotion cleansing your body. Let it run through you, but don’t try to stop it. Just watch it, experience what it does, and let it run its course. Bit by bit, the cloud will start to drift away off you. The emotion is not you, and does not define you, but when it passes by, let it do what it needs to before it goes away.

Living in a constant good mood is not achievable, or very practical. Psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson (author of The PositivityRatio) likens this kind of happiness – hedonic happiness – to “empty calories”. The deeper kind of happiness encompasses the bad as well as the good, accepting negative feelings as part of the deal, creating a more meaningful life.

On the other side of the coin, embracing only your negative emotions doesn't mean that you're being more realistic. It's just as easy to cloud your reality with pessimism as it is with optimism. If you think that everything you touch is going to turn to sh*t, you're probably no closer to reality than those who think they're Goldfinger.

As with most things, the key is to strike a happy medium. As Gruber and colleagues point out - happiness might be like food; you need some to sustain you, but gorging yourself on it will only make you sick. Don't wallow in your negative thoughts, but don't try forcing yourself to feel happy, either - as they say, a watched pot never boils. Do things for their own sake, take on activities that you enjoy, spend time with people you love, and happiness (the fulfilling kind, not the crazy always-smiling kind) will come in its own time.

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne


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