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The Positivity Deception


Do you ever get tired of people telling you to “think positive”? I know I do.

There are a lot of little platitudes like this that get foisted on us:

  * "Be grateful."
  * "Think good thoughts."
  * "Life's not fair."
  * "The world doesn't owe you a thing."

These tend to be repeated without much thought, rather than be examined for what they suggest. Well, I’m the kind of person who prefers to examine, so let’s have at it.

It’s not that being positive or grateful is a bad thing. Few people probably enjoy emitting negativity on a constant basis. But there are a few problems with how these sentiments are expressed, and why.

First, a valid psychological concept–the self-fulfilling prophecy–is contorted into magical thinking. Positive attitudes are helpful to the extent that they make one better able to cope with life’s frustrations. Reacting to every bad experience or disappointment by plunging into an abyss of despair is, obviously, not helpful to the individual who would like not to have such experiences. But failing to think positively doesn’t cause these experiences. Racism doesn’t exist because non-white people have negative attitudes, nor does sexism exist because women refuse to smile. People who are poor aren’t poor because they didn’t think positively enough about having more money. Aphorisms that suggest otherwise are not just misguided but actively insulting. And one doesn’t have to be poor or a member of a marginalized demographic for such reasoning to still be senseless. A person’s life is a nexus of evolving circumstances and relationships, and while a positive outlook may be useful as one component of an overall strategy of self-improvement, its utility is limited, and easily exaggerated.

In addition, admonitions to replace complaints and expressions of anger and disappointment with more cheerful sentiments are frequently used to maintain the comfort of the positivity evangelist. This is more commonly known as tone policing, where the manner in which a grievance is criticized rather than addressing the actual contents of the grievance.

If this all sounds hypothetical, considering the way in which 12-step recovery programs work. For one thing, they don’t work. But worse than that, the failure of the program is blamed on the participant, rather than the program’s own flawed nature. If one relapses into alcoholism or drug abuse, it’s because the individual was weak and didn’t attempt the program in good faith, or have the right attitude for it. There are numerous similar situations in which an individual is blamed for their misfortune and unpleasant circumstances by virtue of something as ephemeral as their emotional disposition. Sure, it’s easy to alienate people by being a jerk–clearly, one’s attitude in personal interactions matters–but success or failure in life tends not to be contingent on your attitude. Rather, a host of factors are involved, many of which are well outside the control of the individual.

That’s where the other half comes in. If someone expressing frustration isn’t harangued to “think positive,” they’re instead dismissed with “life’s not fair” or told “the world doesn’t owe you.” Both of these sentiments are patronizing and condescending. A young woman who worked for Yelp! recently saw her open letter to the company’s CEO go viral. There was a significant backlash and it was mostly negative. There were many objections to her tone, but even putting that aside, there has been considerable reluctance to engage with the substance of her complaints. Young adults are barraged with a litany of double-standards:

  * Get a college degree which often requires taking on a mountain of debt which can be difficult or impossible to escape. Then, when someone who has done this laments their situation, the typical response is, "Nobody forced you to take on that debt!" or "Maybe you should have gotten a degree in something useful!" no matter what the degree actually was.
  * If one lives in a remote area with few jobs, the advice is to move to someplace with more jobs. The catch: places with abundant jobs are more expensive to live. So, the complaint becomes, "How do I afford to live here?" Cue critiques that one should move somewhere cheaper (where there are no jobs). Of course, it is unacceptable to suggest that one should be paid more, since such a request is viewed as entitlement.
  * Live within your means. No smartphone, no broadband Internet, no car, etc. This is usually spouted with a high degree of ignorance surrounding what is necessary to be competitive and survive in today's business environment. Jobs often expect 24/7 availability, that you have reliable transportation (again, on a 24/7 basis), and some also require that you be able to work from home--so you need that reliable Internet, too. There are certainly circumstances where those things are _not_ all necessary, but generally speaking, cutting out one or two of them not only diminishes one's job prospects and competitiveness, it also ends up not saving as much money as is typically believed.

The fact is that it’s harder to start one’s career on a good footing now than it was a generation ago, and the advice passed down from elder generations comes only in the two forms described above: being told to “be more grateful,” or “be less entitled.” I don’t mean to focus on intergenerational conflict, here–that’s merely one arena in which this sort of issue manifests, but it is not the only one.

The bottom line is that one’s personal attitude and outlook matter, but they don’t decide everything. Someone expressing their disappointment or unhappiness with a difficult situation doesn’t need to be told to “suck it up” or “be positive” or “get used to it.” These are tactics used to avoid discussing problems, confining them to the person who is suffering rather than risk the discomfort of others. It betrays a lack of empathy, as well.

So, the next time you find yourself about to pop off with one of these cliches, stop and think about it first. Is it really going to help, or are you dismissing someone’s valid concerns and feelings? If you truly want to be helpful, come up with something more thoughtful than tired old phrases.

Photo by Nasir Nasrallah