Taking a shot at relentless optimism.

By Arthur Waley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I like positivity as much as the next person, and I try to stay positive on social media, because, well, it’s social media. If you have a Facebook account you’ve seen the virtual train wreck that happens when people go negative: grown-ups posting anonymous, passive aggressive messages as statuses, private grievances aired out before 500 of one’s closest friends, obscenity-laden messages to people you’ve never met who blast loud music or cut you off in traffic.

But you know what’s equally horrifying? The cult of relentless optimism. You know who I’m talking about: the people who profess to never say anything negative, for whom affirmations are a way of life and who repress their negative thoughts until, presumably, they go around grinning grotesquely, like victims of The Joker in the 1989 Batman movie.

Why bash positive thinking? Well, I’ve tried it. I self-helped for years. In that time, I self-affirmed and envisioned and made vision boards and sent good, warm, rose-colored energy out into the universe.  I’ve self-hypnotized. I’ve tried to banish the word “should” from my vocabulary. And, as someone who is despite my best efforts, still on Tony Robbins’ mailing list, I can tell you that not only does relentless positivity not work, it’s also annoying.

Enter a breath of fresh air.

NPR’s All Things Considered ran this interview on Tuesday, making my evening. The gist? Author Oliver Burkeman has written a book that states the opposite of what most self-help books tell us: that relentless optimism actually makes people more miserable.

The book is called The Antidote and the message is refreshing, even if it seems like common sense.

Here’s a quote from Burkeman’s interview with NPR’s  Audie Cornish:

I think that what is counterproductive about all these efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state is that by doing that, you often achieve the opposite.

I’m someone who is irritable a lot, and I kind of enjoy being irritable. Being ecstatic 24/7 is not my natural state. So I agree that denying ourselves the full range of our emotions by concentrating only on the positive would be like trying to exist by eating only carbohydrates.

You might love carbs, but your body can’t exist without fats or proteins, and still remain healthy. Speaking for myself, I cannot live on happiness alone. I need rage, nerves and a side of the blues to be mentally healthy, and I doubt I’m alone in this.

Check out the NPR link above for more info. Burkeman’s put the crosshairs on both self-help and the cult of optimism, and that, ironically, makes me happy.

10 thoughts on “Taking a shot at relentless optimism.

  1. You know one thing this book has going for itself? That all the people who are the positivity-lovers will actually think negatively about his theory. So in a sense, he is set up for success.

  2. I am one of those people who is relentlessly optimistic. It’s nothing I work at, I’m just generally a happy person. So, if I say I’m unhappy, or if I’m grumpy, then you know sh*t really must be going down the tubes.

    That being said, I think that – assuming the quote here encapsulates the thesis of the book – this guy has a really good point. If you’re trying to push yourself towards feeling a certain way, it’s just not going to work.

    I think people … we feel what we feel, and we need to stop disenfranchising ourselves by fighting against that. If you are, by nature, a grumpy person–stay grumpy! Be true to yourself. (But let me stay bright and shiny.) Embrace who you are, and live within those parameters. If you’re not happy, at least you have a chance of being content 🙂

    • I agree completely. The relentless cheerfulness I’m complaining about in this post is the expectation that people should act happy all the time, especially if they’re not happy. And that sort of perkiness is often brittle, aggressive and evangelistic.
      But naturally happy people don’t annoy me, because they’re just being themselves.

  3. I’ll be devil’s advocate here, unless I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying. I can agree that burying your feeling instead of addressing them is definitely a bad thing. It’s okay to show that you’re unhappy, it’s not okay to wear it as a chip on your shoulder you dare everyone else to knock off. It’s okay to feel emotions, but unproductive to dwell on them. I heard a lecture recently where the speaker said something like, I had a wrecked car and I realized I can either have a wrecked car and be miserable or have a wrecked car and be happy, but either way I’m still going to have a wrecked car.

    That doesn’t mean you suppress any and all emotion that doesn’t fit in with society’s definition of positive. You feel it, maybe even have a little chocolate, scoop of ice cream, etc., but then you focus your attention back on those good things in your life and move forward with your goals and dreams. If we didn’t believe in a better tomorrow how would we get out of bed in the mornings? That doesn’t mean every day will be sunshine and daisies. All sunshine makes a desert, after all.

    I guess being a writer, I’m focused constantly on improvement—improving my writing, improving my stories, and coming along with that is improving myself. I used to be a super negative person. I like better my optimistic self. That doesn’t mean I never have negative moments, it just means I chose to view the world for its possibilities rather than its negative attributes. Not ignoring the negative, but focusing instead on the positive. It’s made my life better.

    All right, devil’s advocate position finished.

    • I respect any devil’s advocate, but disagree. If I wrecked my car and tried to make myself be happy about it, I think I’d be even more miserable.
      I do agree that wallowing in negativity isn’t helpful, but I think there’s a difference between indulging in misery and accepting one’s own emotional state and then moving on.

      • I don’t think he meant happy that your car is wrecked, but happy as a state of being. You can have your happiness decided by a wrecked car or you can be happy (state of being) despite the wrecked car, because the wrecked car isn’t going to change, but you can.

        I agree on the last part with you though, indulging then moving on. Ignoring emotions, as I think you had well stated in your post, is dangerous and unhealthy.

  4. Bless you for sharing this. I might read that book if I ever have time for non-work reading. I’m a really enthusiastic person (I know, you’re shocked), but I’m equally enthusiastic about being cranky. It burns my buttons when people want me to be happy ALL the time. Where’s the fun in that?

    One of my favorite compliments, paid me by a friend in college, compared me to a shot of espresso- scathing and bitter. I’m much more mellow now than I was then, but I still have my moments, and I’ll cherish them, thanks much.

  5. A.J., I love this post. I like that I have found a kindred in you in that you share my disillusionment with the New Age ethos of happiness and self-help. I wrote a blog post about “The Secret” because, after I’d exhausted my searching phase, I was fed up with the blatant, crass and ignorant simplicity of self-help teaching that demanded positivity. I felt that there was a moral line that was crossed by “The Secret” and, at risk of dooming myself to the camp of ‘lack consciousness’—that’s what people who believe in this bunk call it when you are negative—I wrote this post: http://ungloved.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/why-the-law-of-attraction-sucks/ It seems like in this guy’s writing someone else is sticking up for the idea that there can be a law of moral and psychological equilibrium violated by infinitely preaching happiness. I mean part of being empathetic is a willingness to acknowledge other’s pain and frustrations and suffering. How can you do that if you think maintaining a positive outlook is the ultimate and only way to go?

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