I’m a positive person. It’s one of the reasons I feel drawn toward positive psychology as an area of study. Positive psych teaches us a lot about what is good in life, where our strengths lie, and what we can do to pursue happiness. It also teaches us something which I am writing about today, which is summed up nicely by Charles dickens “vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess”. Anything, even positivity, can turn bad.
So, what does this have to do with our current situation you may ask? Well, one thing that I have seen a lot on social media is a sort of unfiltered positivity. Slogans such as “choose to be happy”, “look on the bright side”, or “we are all in this together” are all well and good, but there is something that is missing. Simply put, everyone is different, telling one person to just be happy may work, they may be in a position in which they can decide to be happy. But for people in the middle of other life circumstances, these statements may actually make them feel worse. Take a look at some of the push back with celebrity quarantine messages, it’s easy to tell people to stay positive when your sitting in a mansion worth more than some people will make in their entire lives.
Telling people that they should simply choose to be positive sets up an expectation for them to conform which they may not be able to conform to. I have seen countless posts online about people looking on the bright side of the quarantine and doing all of the things they have wanted to do but haven’t had the time. Are you a bad person or wasting your time because you didn’t read more books or work out during the lockdown? No, of course not, its Murphy’s law, nothing goes according to plan.
Now I am not saying that being positive or optimistic is not a good thing, decades of research has shown that it has many physical and mental health benefits. What I am saying is that being positive is a lot like lifting a car engine, simple concept, but not easy without the right tools. For some people, all it may take is a simple choice, or a simple message they read online. For others, these words may ring hollow. And you know what? That’s okay. Stress, sadness, and anxiety are valid emotions that people have. If someone comes to you to share their fears and you simply tell them to stay positive then you are invalidating the feeling that, at least to them, are very real have an equally real source.
You may be asking what you can do. This is a tricky thing since every situation is different. One thing seems to work in many cases, be there for others. Social support can come in many forms. Sometimes its tangible, giving someone a ride, fixing a computer, etc. Sometimes it’s just informational, helping a friend in a bad place get the help they need. Most often it is just emotional help. If someone is having a stressful time, instead of telling them to look on the bright side, maybe ask them if you can help, or simply just listen to them vent.
This type of support has taken a pretty nasty hit in recent months. Quarantine means increased isolation and feelings of social distance. Even when out and about in person, everyone wearing masks has a way of depersonalizing interactions and making them seem less real. This isolation, coupled with the many messages of positivity, may mean that some people don’t seek support from others because they don’t want to be seen as “failing” at being happy. It is up to others to make contact, even something as simple as a text message checking in can do wonders for someone’s need for social interaction and support. If they don’t feel like talking, that’s fine as well, sometimes people don’t. Even social support can be negative if it’s too much or unwanted.
So long story short, positivity is a good thing but keep in mind that not everyone can simply turn it on like light. Some people need to work through things to get to the light on the other side. Be there for them, be there for yourself, and while you can try your best to be positive, don’t feel bad if you can’t.
-Joseph R. Castro, PhD