With the plethora of chirpy feel-good slogans in the world, we are left with the implication that if only we think positively enough and act pro-actively enough the “Universe” will make our fondest wishes come true. We also encounter the contemporary version of the old “keep a stiff upper lip”–we should soldier through adversity and be thankful for the “life lessons” inauspicious things have to offer.
I’ve been told that I have an upbeat personality by family and friends. I suppose they’re correct. I look at old Kodak snapshots of my much younger self and I see the smile my grandparents told me I always had. Nobody ever had to remind me to smile for the camera. My childhood could probably be described as “normal”. There were ups and downs, but the good things far outweighed the bad things. Like most people, my self-perception is one of being better than average.
That said, I have a slight, niggling discomfort about the “think positive to better cope with life” ideology. In a way, it seems unrealistic. How can it be good that we should shoehorn our complex emotional lives into such a restrictive environment? It sometimes seems that we are expected to conform to a positive thinking norm at all times. Sometimes all this advocacy of positivity feels oppressive and demanding.
It seems that many of the promoters of positivity think that our emotions can be regulated by some sort of thermostat that we can dial up or down for optimum comfort. If we feel sorrow or just bummed out, those feelings are somehow not legitimate and that through sheer faith or by turning up the “thermostat” to higher positivity, life will be great again.
The idea that I should be able to quickly dispose of negative emotions was reinforced in the workplace. This is understandable given the parameters of modern economics and the requirements of efficiently running a business. A major problem arises when crisp, technological efficiency must coexist with messy, human emotions.
Thankfully, my former employer had a mourning leave policy. This was a one-week period designed to give bereaved employees time to grieve the loss of close family members. This was helpful when mom died after a cardiac emergency. I was able to pull myself together enough to be able to function as a good disc jockey. I had to have a positive demeanor in order to interact with my listening audience. Nobody wants to hear a “Danny Downer” back-announce their favorite songs.
A few months later, I lost my significant other, but since we were not legally married I was ineligible for mourning leave. I chose to stuff those negative emotions and put on my positive personality for work.
I don’t mention these events to garner sympathy, I use them to illustrate how common it is to repress negative emotions in order to present a happy, positive face to the world. We are urged to always be positive and be our best selves in order to be efficient, effective people.
However, humans did not evolve into beings who are constantly efficient or optimally effective. We are not cogs that smoothly mesh with the gears of business and industry. We are creatures who experience a wide range of emotional states. Positivity becomes oppressive when we are encouraged to over-control or over compensate for our messier emotions.
In traditional belief systems, the Moon represents human emotions. Just as the Moon waxes and wanes in brightness, so do our emotions. Sometimes we feel as bright and vibrant as the Full Moon and sometimes we feel as dark and slack as the New Moon. There are no finite boundaries between the bright and the dark sides of the Moon, they are gradual and nuanced. The Moon would lose much of its appeal if it was always full or always dark.
Life would seem somehow lacking richness if it was always upbeat and positive or downbeat and negative. To be human is a mixture but is not a consistent blend. The lunar flaws of craters and hills make the moon-glow more beautiful. The peaks and valleys of our emotions make life feel more profound.
I love to feel upbeat and positive. I appreciate the depth and profundity of negativity. I’m thankful for the semblance of balance between the two.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders something from philosopher/journalist Julian Baggini. “The optimist underestimates how difficult it is to achieve real change, believing that anything is possible and it’s possible now. Only by confronting head-on the reality that all progress is going to be obstructed by vested interests and corrupted by human venality can we create realistic programmes that actually have a chance of success.”