In February of 2019, Said Mechaout walked up to Stefano Leo and slit his throat with a knife. The two didn’t know each other. Mechaout just found Leo walking up the street. During interrogation, Mechaout admitted to the crime and told police, “I killed Stefano Leo because he seemed like a happy person.”
It’s kind of hard to imagine how someone could actually murder another over being happy. Mechaout clearly suffered underlying psychological problems. The average person is not going to elevate to a level of homicide just because someone was happy.
BUT, there is clearly frustration and often extreme anger over those vomiting happiness everywhere. And I’ve certainly seen and spoken with people that would like to kill people exuding positivity. In many ways the murder of Leo reflects this frustration.
There’s a growing movement against positive thought. The phrase, “toxic positivity” is thrown around as condemnation of positivity junkies.
Yesterday I went on social media and saw someone complain those expressing toxic positivity were gaslighting (a way of manipulating others into questioning their world views or sanity). Most interestingly, this person described the anger they felt over the toxic positivity people.
There are, very simply, problems with both sides of this equation. People that express the need to be positive no matter what, are missing the mark. But people who feel positivity is toxic are throwing out the baby with the bath water and are unnecessarily inflating their own bad feelings. In this blog, I’ll explore why positivity is being rejected and how we can more effectively use it to better our lives.
Why Positivity Can Be a Problem
There seems to be a lot of confusion about how to effectively utilize positive thinking. There are three major problems with the school of thought that holds if you feel negative, think positive and everything will be great.
(1) You Can’t Just Reverse Negative Emotions
If you are experiencing strong negative emotions you can’t simply override them by saying, “I’m not upset. I’m happy.” Emotions don’t work like that. They’re powerful. That power can’t be ignored.
To try and stop them while you’re in the experience is much like putting your hand up to a tidal wave and thinking the wave will stop. You’re going to get swept away.
There are lots of ways to temper and redirect the trajectory of emotions. But pretending they don’t exist is an exercise in futility. Emotions are designed to be powerful and they’re designed to override other cognitive processes.
(2) Effort to Suppress Leads to More Negative Emotion
If you attempt to stop the tidal wave and it doesn’t work, you’ll probably try again. When you try again, you’re going to get swept away again.
The result? You’re going to feel frustrated at the fact that what you’re trying isn’t working. Now you’ll not only be feeling the underlying negative emotion, but you’re also going to be feeling the negativity of your frustration. In effect you’ll have doubled down on the bad stuff you’re feeling.
(3) People Around You Are Going to Get Angry
You’re really upset. That person you thought was your friend comes up and says, “just focus on the positives and be happy!” Anger ensues. You’d like to strangle Mr. or Ms. Positive. Your pain feels dismissed. They don’t understand or aren’t acknowledging what you’re feeling. Screw them.
This dynamic happens a lot. It’s a major reason we have people complaining of “toxic positivity.”
Pain causes the Flip. The Flip makes you point at someone else and say, “this is your fault, not mine.” In the context of positivity, telling someone else who’s hurting they should just ignore their pain and be positive is often going to induce the Flip. The result is conflict and a rejection of all things positive.
I can’t help but think of the movie, The Life of Brian. In it, a man is literally crucified on a cross in ancient Rome. He’s told (in song) by another man to always look on the bright side of life. There’s often this degree of absurdity in the desire to impose positivity on others.
But to reject a positive mindset on any of these grounds is also to ignore its power.
How Positivity Is Valuable
While positivity is not terribly useful in changing a state you’re experiencing in the moment, it does alter your trajectory towards future emotional states.
(1) Setting Yourself Up for Happiness
Compare these situations:
For weeks, everything has been going well. You feel like you’re walking on air. You sing Everything Is Awesome to yourself [click the link and play it, to totally get the feel of this]. Your boss promoted you. Your relationship with your significant other is going well. You’re getting along with your kids (who are doing well in school). Everything seems great. As you’re skipping down the street, you accidentally bump into a man. The man spins around and starts screaming at you. “You careless asshole! Why can’t you watch where you’re going?!”
For weeks everything has been going terribly. You feel like fate is out to get you. You sing Mad World to yourself [click the link and play it, to totally get the feel of this]. Your boss fired you. Your significant other was screaming at you earlier because you did something or other wrong. The kids are fighting with you. Everything seems horrible. As you walk, dejected, down the street, you accidentally bump into a man. The man spins around and starts screaming at you. “You careless asshole! Why can’t you watch where you’re going?!”
When things are going how you want, as in the first scenario, it takes a lot more to derail your mood. It’s far less likely that the screaming passerby is going to have as pervasive a negative impact there than in the second situation. But if things have been going terribly, the man yelling at you is going to be one of those, “great, just my luck-what else could go wrong,” kind of moments. How built up or worn down we are is going to alter how effectively we handle the things in life that we don’t like.
Further, your internal dialogue has an impact on how your life unfolds. See, e.g., this research article. Thus, by putting yourself into a good emotional state through the words you say to yourself (aka, through positive thought), you’ll be better able to handle the crappy things when they arise. Positivity is therefore useful as a preemptive measure to eliminate bad feelings before they even surface.
(2) Positivity Begets Positivity
Emotions self-perpetuate and snowball into more and more of their kind. When you focus and vent anger, for example, you feel more anger.
In a similar sense dwelling on positive things in the moment redirects your focus and sends your emotions in a positive direction instead of in a direction that reinforces the negative feels.
An important note: this is not the same thing as saying, “I’m unhappy so if I think positive thoughts I’ll override the negative ones.” You aren’t eliminating the existence of the negative thoughts. You’re redirecting where your attention is going so as not to give more fuel to the negative thoughts. Instead you’re giving fuel to the positive ones.
If you’re unhappy, don’t assume that simply being positive is going to make that feeling go away. But don’t throw away positivity because of that fact. Instead, recognize the power of positivity in your future feels and in the trajectory you’re taking towards them. You’ll feel a lot better if you do.
If you want to learn more about ways to utilize positivity in a general sense or how it can impact conflict in your life, check out Emotional Embuffination, the book. Also, check out the My Reality Generator journal for tools to help you utilize positivity.