In his 2011 TED Talk, “The Happy Secret to Better Work,” Harvard professor and best-selling author Shawn Achor shared his findings on happiness and success: “If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage.” The “happiness advantage,” Achor says, affects intelligence, creativity, energy, and work performance.
His talk is a favorite among motivational workshops and industry conferences, and it remains one of the most-viewed on the TED online platform, with almost 20 million views.
Who doesn’t want to be happier? The prospect of a change in perspective altering your life’s course is alluring. Achor’s tips for promoting positivity aren’t bad either: practicing gratitude, journaling, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness. However, anyone alive can tell you that emotions come in so many more shades than good and bad, and that constant positivity is unrealistic. Attempting to enforce it (on yourself or others) could be toxic.
Enforced positivity ignores trauma and clinical depression, and it cheapens the inescapable and complex experience of being human.
A much less popular TED Talk, given by psychologist Susan David, extols “emotional courage” and embracing the complexity of the human experience. “Being positive has become a new form of moral correctness,” David says. “It’s cruel and ineffective.”
Achor belongs to a camp known as positive psychology. The school of thought was formally introduced 21 years ago as the new theme of American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman. He announced a new focus on “the good life” and what makes people happy, saying that for too long psychology dwelled on illness and disabling conditions.
The new psychological interest in what makes people flourish sparked unprecedented research and study of happiness. Proponents of positive psychology have maintained that the field is meant to complement previous understandings of pathology and depression instead of replace them, but critics of Seligman and his trendy dive into happiness research are skeptical.
Even if you’ve never heard of Martin Seligman or his psychological paradigm shift, you can probably recognize plenty of symptoms of positive psychology in everyday American life. But Dr. Barbara Held, author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, rails against “the tyranny of the positive attitude” in professional settings across the country precipitated by positive psychology. “If people feel bad about life’s many difficulties and they cannot manage to transcend their pain no matter how hard they try (to learn optimism), they could end up feeling even worse,” she says.
Telling others to “cheer up” or “stop being so negative” can send the dangerous message that any sentiments other than eager delight should be repressed. Enforced positivity ignores trauma and clinical depression, and it cheapens the inescapable and complex experience of being human.
In her TED Talk, Susan David references her own survey of 70,000 people, a third of whom admitted to judging their negative emotions — sadness, anger, grief — harshly, if not ignoring them altogether. She warns, “When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
In the midst of our crusade for optimal glee, we ought to think of all there is to lose in relentless pursuit of the “happiness advantage” — namely, emotional honesty, character, and resiliency. Anyone who claims these can manifest from positive thinking is delusional.
*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
This article is featured in the January/February 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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