About ten years ago, my sister sent me Martin Seligman’s TEDTalk. Dr. Seligman’s life’s work cannot be summarized in a paragraph, but I can tell you how it’s been distilled by pop culture because that was the reason I was seething when I saw the link.
Thank you, I thought, another schmuck telling me to look at the bright side of things when I want to die. Sure, I will just look for the positive in life and be cured.
I am still not the biggest fan of the theory, but at least I do not incorrectly oversimplify it to it’s headline anymore. After doing my research, I recognize there were nuances the doctor just couldn’t get to in 5 minutes, but those nuances unravel a simple “smile more” into an entire physiological philosophy that can actually help many people lead more productive lives.
This nuanced version is not how we understand Positive Psychology culturally. Armed with the pop-philosophy variant of it, I feel fashion and lifestyle bloggers have pushed the positivity concept to a limiting point, distilling it to extreme optimism:
“Focus on the good in life only, always look for the bright side, and be grateful for what you have instead of thinking about what you don’t. Remove anyone who does not agree with this, as they are negative.”
…or something very close to that.
Chances are you are following someone right now who is a great model of this attitude. However, you may also have noticed different results than those promised when you look at their pictures, depending on your day. Instead of joy, you may actually experience Facebook Depression. We may deeply admire this person, but slowly we begin to envy their lifestyle and then we usually end up feeling awful about ourselves because we are comparing our accomplishments to a seemingly constant stream of their incredible feats. You went to a museum this Saturday? Well they went on a hike and then a museum and saved a puppy. You know you do not live their exact life, yet you may end up hating yourself for that exact reason.
After ten years of Positive Psychology permeating our culture I can honestly say, it’s not the positivity that makes us cringe, it’s feeling forced to compare our mundane to someone else’s seemingly constant joy.
Our self-esteem feels threatened when we think we might be someone else’s downward comparison (when you compare yourself to someone doing worse than you). So you might double down and say, I just need to focus on being happy more, work harder, when, in the case of someone with depression, you’ve already overextended your ability for joy by working so hard to ignore your problem.
What will happen if you take a person who is largely devoid of emotion and positive internal dialogue, maybe even partly due to those aforementioned comparisons or perhaps full on clinical depression? Well, if someone is in a general cathartic state, positive is not something that can be comprehended. How can you not feel worse, if the pop version of positivity culturally tells us that humans are capable of being their happiest only if using this one-for-all solution? That focusing on chasing joy will lead you to your best life?
I cannot emphasize enough that this was not the original intention
The textbook version of positive psychology, however, is noticing those encounters that normally make us feel awful about ourselves and re-learning how to see them in another, brighter light. It’s not an objective rejection of reality or brushing things under the rug that truly should have been removed a while ago, but re-teaching our mind to assume the best instead of the worst in any situation.
Back to Dr. Seligman. Few people know that he came up with Positive Psychology as he was seeking to understand depression and other mental illnesses. He observed that people who experience the same event may end up describing it in a variety of ways depending on their general outlook of life, and those who were able to look at things in a positive light were less likely to be depressed. His goal wasn’t to create constant joy in people, but rather to make it a fundamental pillar (one of five, actually) of our well-being.
In terms of psychology as a science, he simply wanted to highlight the good emotions we feel as much as we had previously highlighted and focused on the bad ones up to that point. Right now, we take only the things wrong with us and study solutions for them. Instead, he proposed, we should study the things that we do that make us feel good and use them as an example of good mental health.
It’s not that Positive Psychology is unhelpful, it’s that for those dealing with Depression, imaging another thinking pattern or really having control over the chemicals in their brains is impossible. And the improper interpretation of Dr. Seligman’s idea created a social pressure to be nothing other than positive.
Every person has to overcome hurdles. Some appear smaller to others, others are bigger than someone might let on. It is exactly at this cross-section of objectivity and relativity that mental health understanding currently lies in the public eye. Sympathy is still an uncommon commodity in a world where we recognize 1 in 4 will experience depression in their lifetime. We need to stop measuring our positive experiences up against someone else’s negative ones and vice-versa. We need to walk in one another’s mental shoes.
Positive psychology is absolutely a must on the list of things that will help us manage the world us depressed folks see as gray all the time. Even if it’s just to help us view it as others do. It might be best to avoid comparing your gray day to someone’s rose colored glasses too. Be you, and be all of it.