The tyranny of positivity



St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper-Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald.



Don’t worry, be happy – a well-known meme for over a decade now and the title of one of my favourite songs. It seems the simplest answer to living a good life, but a top US academic says that it may be just the opposite.

Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David reckons that the “tyranny of positivity” is, in fact, detrimental, rather than delightful.

Our obsession with happiness is unhealthy – and sometimes it feels as though we’re living “inside an overly sincere Hallmark card,” she explains. In fact, the dominant message in western society nowadays is cheap and cheerful: “Just reach for happiness. Take your destiny into your own hands.”

Somewhere, you can hear a Disney bird chirping, says David.

To not reach for happiness initially seems wholly at odds with living a fulfilled life. But unpacking the psychology behind David’s argument is elucidating. Perhaps we’re putting the cart before the horse, or trying too hard to have our cake without considering the ingredients needed to score a slice in the first place?

On social media, for example, there are predominantly two sets of people, as I see it – the ones who burst with bubbly collections of joyful messages and snaps of sepia-tinged get-togethers, and those who so obviously want someone to see that they’re angry/dejected/myopically fed up with the world. I tend to scroll past and block out both of these extremes. Neither feels real – and David may understand why.

Joy is a double-edged sword

Happiness, she argues, has become an expectation in modern society. The actual state of happiness has taken on material value, perhaps – where before, you’d be assumed to be content because you were well-fed, well-connected and, if not wealthy, comfortable, the world now judges you to be well-adjusted – mature and ‘with it’, perhaps – if your online emoticons are mostly smiling faces, rather than explosive ones.

I think that the double, even triple, lives we lead play a big part in this. Most of us have created an online persona, complete with a full chronology of our work and family histories, special occasions, days out with friends, milestones and other socially significant events.

The media has also made it impossible to not be tempted by the possibility of being a brilliant all-rounder – witness the university research showing how destructive social media has been in the lives of teenagers and young adults, who use technology as a comparative tool for checking themselves against others and, in the majority of cases, feeling second best.

David says that humans need to develop the coping mechanisms and skills to deal with adversity and challenges – and that there is no shame in this. Life doesn’t run smoothly – and we need to stop seeing grief, sadness and heartbreak as signs of weakness, or pretend that they don’t exist.

She has a point. The more I notice communities evolving nowadays, the less authenticity I see among the mainstream front-runners who shape and influence communities. The return of Victorian plasticity, as I call it, is imminent – our language, mannerisms and social interactions are being drowned in platitudes and mass media-shaped sound bites, as well as an umbrella of political correctness.

We are tending towards shutting out anyone who dares to be different, or who voices, sincerely and, possibly, aggressively, their financial challenge, or parenting fiasco, or alternative viewpoints on politics, religion and religion.

Happiness, says David, is not a goal. Building one’s life around things that one authentically, truly values will automatically create the by-product of joy.

This forced good cheer of ours is a tragic farce.

Leave a Reply