Happiness Has Become a Duty and a Burden, due to the Philosophy of "Positive Thinking"

in life •  2 years ago 

I recently ordered the book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann.

The title itself felt weird to me at first, since I find "self improvement" to be a really positive thing, which should make our own lives easier. However, I stumbled upon some interviews by the author, and something that interested me was his stance on the craze of "positive thinking".

I touched on the same subject a bit in my recent post Job Interviews and the Culture of Fake Awesomeness.

Svend seems to firmly believe that the culture of positive thinking is actually making us depresssed. The idea that your always supposed to be super positive and optimistic can, according to him, actually lead to the stunting of our overall emotional growth.

I've been of this mindset, too, for a long time. You can really notice how we've built a culture where bad things are not talked about; uneasy subject matters have euphemisms, unpopular opinions are censored in the name of "political correctness", and moreover the politically correct mindset has become the new "normal".

Culture is not a static thing, but rather constantly evolving, but the little changes can be so subtle and slow that it's hard to notice them when they happen. But as they stack up, you can end up with a very different culture in the span of five-ten-twenty years.

When positive thinking and the expectations of positive thoughts, at the expense of more negative ones, become the new normal, they cast aside an entire spectrum of completely natural feelings and reactions to certain situations in life, and it all leads to a very fake, artificial human, who is more than likely not a very happy one - after it's all said and done.

The idealized, optimal human being in a society that only promotes positive thinking is something that no one truly is. This creates a pressure to lie; lying in job interviews, lying to co-workers, lying to bosses, lying to friends, lying to partners.

Especially a more introverted person will grow up being constantly reminded that there's something wrong with him because he's not a super socializing, dynamic package of joy and smiles, constantly, 24/7. He or she can easily become ostracized from society just for showing that he or she is a normally functioning human being that can sometimes get pissed over things.

Brinkmann also reminds people that even though life can be great in many respects, it's also very tragic. And it's healthy to admit that. The realities of life's darker side that can include things like break ups, illness, even death, can hit people extremely hard if one is only accustomed to the mantra of "positive thinking".

It's something I've been wondering about for a long time that people of my age group seem to be really bad at dealing with failures. I'm not the best at them, either, but I've had some training due to tragedies like death that I simply had to deal with.

A possible explanation for this inability to cope with life's negative aspects could be that we're only ever taught to be positive. And let's face it: there's a lot to life not to be positive about.

In America, it actually became a workplace ruling that employers are not allowed to require employees to be happy all the time

I'm not in favor of government regulation of this sort, because it often leads to problems that are not realized during the writing of the law, and when the problems arise, it's too late because unwriting a law takes around 300 years at the very least, but it goes to show this is an issue that does exist.

I recently read an interesting article by a guest writer on our local newspaper where the writer said that he's increasingly annoyed by the fake cheerfulness of shop workers. The "HAVE A NICE DAY", according to him, always comes off fake and forced, and there is no need for that.

Personally I'm all for shop workers being polite in a normal human manner, but I'm inclined to agree that sometimes the fake happiness is, if not annoying, then at least pointless since you know it's fake.

The workers, of course, are in a tough place since some customers absolutely require this sort of behavior, and will probably report the lack of it to the worker's superior.

I'm not sure why it's required of the workers, though, to be honest. Very few of us are like that if not forced to be, and personally if I'm at a store, all I need is to deal with normal human beings that have basic manners. They don't have to a smile that looks screwed on at all times.

This not just a workplace issue, though. The typical answe to "How are you" from a friend is "Fine", and it's always "Fine", even though his wife was just caught cheating on him, he discovered his has testicular cancer, he was recently fired and can't make his mortgage and his amazing cryptocurrency investment was a pump and dump.

But he's "just fine". Because that's what we're supposed to say.

Negative emotions are a really important tool in how we function within the world. They're not something to be fearful of. There's no morality without guilt and shame. You can't fight against injustice without anger. And sadness is a natural part of the process when coping with a loss or tragedy.

There's a place for happiness, too, but it shouldn't take all the space.

I may write a review once I've read the actual book.

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Fighting symptoms with symptoms.

We, the american people really get hooked on the outward appearance and our thoughts focus on changing that. We tend to focus on the symptom and not the problem. Often coming to grand rationalizations (entire industries) that label the symptom as the problem.

If you look into a mirror, and you see someone frowning, our immediate thought is to reach in there and put a smile on that face.

Your emotions tell you exactly how you feel about what you are manifesting in your life right now. Talking about changing, or even just accepting emotions, is counterproductive and all together silly. You do not "fix" the gas gauge to read full. You need the feedback to tell you accurately what is happening. Do not get mad at your emotions or mad at yourself for your emotions.

Thinking positive is mental training. Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you are correct.

So much of our conditioning (media / movies) teach us to worry about everything. And again, we are working on symptoms. If you are worried about something and that gets you to think about ways to fix the problem, that is great. But, if you just worry, imagining all the things that could go wrong, then you are just sapping all your mental energy. If you can't do anything about it, you need to remove it from your thoughts.

And so, we take the true statement "You can't afford the luxury of a negative thought", and then try to change the thought, not change the thinking.

  ·  2 years ago (edited)

This reminds me of the focus on "improvement points" in performance reviews in corporate Netherlands. Admonishments from the Personel Department to shy, introverted, slightly autistic engineers to be more outgoing, extroverted and happy to give presentations to customers, that sort of thing.

I once responded: "I don't want to discuss improvement points. I'm fine. People are far more productive when you let them do what they are good at and like, while making their so-called shortcomings irrelevant for their position." It was a quote, but I don't remember who first formulated it. Anyway, it didn't go down well at all. I was asked if I thought I was perfect already and couldn't be improved, which wasn't my point at all.


I wholeheartedly agree, yes. But thinking like that is indeed not very popular in the corporate world.

Sounds like an interesting book...

The whole "positive thinking" idea has just gone overboard. From where I am sitting, there's nothing wrong with approaching problem solving with a general "We can get this done!" positive confidence approach... but that's very different from the current state of affairs where people feel pressured to censor any negative (realistic?) thoughts out of existence. Newsflash: Just because you pretend something negative doesn't exist doesn't mean it'll magically go away.

Although I'm by no means a member of the conspiracy theorist tinfoil faraday cage hat brigade, it does sometimes feel like society keeps narrowing the parameters for "normal human experience," including negative feelings... perhaps with an eye towards Big Pharma medicalizing and drugging anyone who's not a "happy little sheep" into oblivion. If we dial back the clock 100 years, someone's "melancholic temperament" was seen as a perfectly normal part of the spectrum of human emotions and they were largely left in peace to be a tragic poet or a deeply troubled artist. Now? Not so much. Would the likes of Strindberg and Nietzsche even be allowed to roam free in today's society?



Every played Paranoia?

Friend Computer reminds you that, "happiness is mandatory!"


unhappy people get used as reactor shielding.


No, but according to the Wikipedia article it sounds really interesting. I'm a sucker for exactly the sort of dystopia fiction where happiness is mandatory and being unhappy gets you shot.


Break out the Soma pills! (The "Brave New World" variety, not carisoprodol). Maybe we are already there, given the amounts of pills prescribed to people who aren't depressed in any clinical, dangerous way.

It's an interesting thought. I've been on the both sides.

It is probably important to discriminate concerning positivity for the sake of glossing over the negative, and positivity for the purpose of encouragement, edification and giving hope when spirit is failing.

In a leadership role it is vital to maintain a vision that inspires and edifies. People can be inclined to create fears and anxieties that become self fulfilling prophecies. Often they have no basis in fact. In a goal orientated environment, solution focused thinking is paramount.


I get your point, but wouldn't you agree that an honest leader is better than one who paints a positive picture just for the sake of, and doesn't shoot straight?

Not that it always has to be that way.

  ·  2 years ago (edited)

I've watched a documentary that described one of the traits of leadership as the ability to lie convincingly. I found that interesting. It seems imperative that our leaders are able to put a spin on things to motivate us.

  ·  2 years ago (edited)

It is very counterproductive when you are, for instance and staying close to home, managing a group of engineers whose job it is to know exactly what is going on in a project. Realism is appreciated, motivational talk is laughed at, as most are inherently motivated to do as good a job as possible anyway.

Most engineers I know only stop giving a shit when they have become convinced on technical grounds that something will never work, yet are forced to continue. No amount of motivational talk will cheer them up, they will just get more annoyed, and you can forget about the coveted happy smiles all around.

Again, I'm speaking from personal experience only, I haven't researched this.

As an anecdote, I remember a project being named "Marvin" by its project manager and engineers. Management didn't pick up this was a reference to the depressed robot from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's the sort of too-subtle protest people are forced to use in an environment that thinks positive thinking conquers all, and blunt realism is frowned upon for not being cheerful enough and can even get you fired.


I'd agree that empty rhetoric is counterproductive.

  ·  2 years ago (edited)

My experience is that negativity infects a group if a leader is negative. If the leaders standards drop, the whole group lowers its standards. Pretty soon, nobody gives a shit. :-)