Lately there have been a lot of people in the social justice community putting down “positive psychology.” For example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Many are accusing positive thinking of being “pop” and even “pseudo” psychology.
The claim is that positivity is not factual or scientific, is very individualistic, and is used to eschew collective responsibility for why people are suffering and/or are unhappy (such as systematic oppression and exploitation).
However, there is rigorous scientific research that validates positive psychology as being widely effective. Not in a self-help book sort of way, but more on measureable level through evidence-based practice psychotherapy. Some of these therapeutic techniques include cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness based therapy (which is actually based on Buddhist principles and practices). These techniques have helped many suffering with depression and anxiety to recover and feel significant improvement. This disproves the notion that positive psychology is a myth or is unscientific, as it has measureable positive outcomes.
The problem with the naysayers, as I see it, is they tend to swing in the opposite direction of positivity. Many are cynical, and attack positivity in order to make an argument for apathy. The “the world sucks and we’re all going to die anyway so why even try” types are the people I am referring to. Those who think this way create a self-fulfilling prophecy. They believe they cannot change anything so they give up. I argue that it’s self-defeating.
Inherent individual temperament aside, I believe most people can benefit from some degree of optimism; and it has been shown that most can learn techniques to become more optimistic. But in the end no one can force anyone to think differently. My point is not necessarily to convince anyone to utilize positivity if it’s not their cup of tea, but rather to say if it works for people why put it down? We choose to utilize positive thinking, or reframe our perception to either more positive, accurate, or non-judgmental thoughts because it works for us. So let’s call a truce on this one and allow each other to live our lives the in the best way we see fit without judgment.
Yes, deep structural, institutional, and systematic change is needed so that we can alleviate suffering and exploitation on a mass and fundamental level. However, I maintain there can be a synthesis of critical thinking, critical awareness, and positive thinking which will lead to better lives for both individuals and groups. But if we could choose to lessen suffering in the moment, even for an individual, why wouldn’t we do so? Last time I checked individuals make up society. They are members of a family and a community; they are your co-workers, your neighbors, etc. Improving the emotional lives of people will have a wider impact on the world.
Moreover, one argument on the other side seems to be saying there isn’t a way to make things better until “after the revolution.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I can wait! I am here to say there are plenty of ways to make things better now! Will they completely alleviate and ameliorate the problems? No. But can they make us feel better? Yes! The opposition seems to think that happiness will cover up the pain and make us less likely to take social action. But I believe when we feel better we have the capacity to do more. Depression and anxiety are demotivating and debilitating. If positivity can help us to have the energy to put into educating and organizing, not to mention increase the quality of our lives and our mental and physical health, then that in and of itself makes it worth a try!
To me being positive is not being unrealistic or “living in the clouds” so to speak. It is strength-based, rooted in self growth, and about reaching ones fullest potential. Being positive is encouragement and believing in yourself and others. Being positive is knowing your own self-worth, value, and dignity. Being positive is keeping hope alive by choosing to continue in a struggle and having the resiliency to bounce back from setbacks. Being positive helps us to fight on and work together for better days for all people. In fact, being positive is a socialist value!
Being a socialist is rooted in love for oneself and one’s community. Without this positivity we couldn’t possibly continue to sustain the movements that breathe life into our collective futures, which require a lot of hard work. Just believing we have a future and it will be better than today because of our struggle, is being positive. Without optimism, we will accept our fate, instead of resisting and agitating until we make something better of our lives. Positivity means being willing to demand better because we know we deserve better!
It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenging emotions or tough times. It doesn’t mean avoiding challenging things or deny the truth about life’s struggles. It means we choose to face them with a positive mental attitude and know we have what it takes to problem solve our way through it. It’s not like we pretend nothing inhumane or unjust ever happens in the world or that positive thoughts alone can make hardships go away and make us happy. We just believe in the power of positivity to help us make things better. In hard times, it means we can lean on a friend, family member, or comrade for support.
We have each other and that in and of itself is positive. Being positive teaches us to embrace our vulnerabilities in order to make connections with others. Instead of listening to the fear-based narratives of the dominant culture, which makes us shut down in shame, we choose to embrace a life which, although sometimes is uncomfortable, is worth living. It is due in large part to the positive social connections we make with others that improves the quality of our lives, renews our spirits, and keeps us going.
As a socialist we realize that through all the pain and suffering, oppression, dehumanization, and exploitation the world has in store for us, we have so much joy, peace, egalitarianism, and mutual aid to share. In the process of our lives we practice in action what we believe in in theory, breathing life into praxis. It’s through positivity that socialists exist. Because we work together towards our collective liberation every day steadfast in the belief that we make a difference and our lives matter.
So instead of rejecting positivity, let’s embrace what it can do for us! Sure, it can’t do everything, but where it has its usefulness let’s use it. Let positivity not be a reason to become complacent or be content in our own little bubble, but let it be a reason for us to become more pro-active, engaged, and inspired to keep moving forward together in our quest for collective human liberation on both individual and societal levels.