I find positive psychology to be somewhat maddening. Choose happiness! Think yourself thin! Re-frame, re-boot, re-imagine! It seems far too reductionist. Can you really fit global warming or genocide or deep personal tragedies inside the Happy Meal Box? Or what of the smaller sadnesses that are part of life? Do they have a place?
I’ve learned that generally when something makes me mad, it is not because I’m right and therefore my anger is justified. Quite the opposite—usually I’m fighting against a reality, and I’m mad that I am wrong, or at least partially wrong. I attach to my ideas and throw out the proverbial “baby with the bathwater.” This is particularly embittering when you are pitting yourself against “positive psychology” because it just makes you feel like the ultimate Scrooge.
When I read Thoreau’s Walden for the first time as a 15 year old, I was hooked. I don’t remember a lot of content from my high school classes, but I do remember Walden. One line that was particularly striking to me then, and is especially striking now (for different reasons) is: “The fault finder will find faults, even in paradise.” At the time, I’m sure I wrote in the margins next to this quote—“my mom.” It drove me crazy as a child that my mom seemed so discontent in her wonderful life. For most of my life, my mom was indeed a “fault finder,” but in the last couple of years she has intentionally and mindfully chosen happiness over faultfinding. And now, 15 years later, I realize that I need to scratch my mom’s name out of the margins insert my own.
Krista Tippet’s recent conversation with social psychologist Ellen Langer on onbeing.org, delves into the science of mindfulness and the ways our ideas can quite literally shape our reality. Langer has done studies where some test subjects are told their task is work and others are told that the same task is play, and the power of these suggestions have real life implications—those who are “playing” are happier in the task than those who are “working.” Her studies also link different ways of thinking to physiological changes. In one study, simply labeling the work of chambermaids as exercise, rather than labor, initiated weight loss, even though the chambermaids were in fact doing the exact same work.
Shawn Achor, a psychologist and champion of Positive Psychology, shares in his beloved Ted Talk: “We’re finding it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality…90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world…if happiness if on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, and then we’ll be happier.”
Walden was published in 1854. Among his many titles, I don’t think Thoreau has ever been called a champion of Positive Psychology, but his line about fault finders is indicative to me that nuggets of truth have deep roots in human history. I’m sure Thoreau was not the first to make an observation of this nature, and the Positive Psychology champions of today won’t be the last. Your outlook shapes your reality. I find no argument with this truth. Where my blood starts boiling is whether or not adopting an internal positive lens is always the appropriate response to life's varied challenges.
When is being happy with life as it is in this moment choosing contentment and when it is it complacency? Contentment is defined as: “the state of being happy and satisfied,” whereas complacency is defined as: “the state of being satisfied with how things are, and not wanting to make them better.” The implication of these two different terms is that sometimes things are good and you should just appreciate it, and sometimes things could be much better and you are lazy or unimaginative or uncourageous if you stick with the status quo. The quicksand is figuring out what’s what.
I am part of a generation of “greener grass seekers.” Settling is reviled. A lifetime career seems like a fantastical notion. My life is good—no great—in a million ways. And yet, like focusing on the twisted ankle instead of the rest of your body, which feels fine, I find myself currently expending extra energy on the parts of my life that hurt. And the question that invariably creeps in, when I hop into this particular washing machine of thought is: “Should I go?” Implicit in this question is the grain of hope that somewhere or someone else will hold the key to greater happiness.
Twice in my life I have left a place or a person. Those decisions were accompanied by heartbreak and indecision and feelings of utter hopelessness. But both times the decision to go was the right decision for that particular moment in my life. Both times, a switch in my external situation gave space for an internal shift. Both times (in hindsight) I have found real value in my struggle.
I do not want to be fickle. I do not want to be a "fault finder, finding faults in paradise." I also don’t believe that you can simply think your way out of every sticky or uncomfortable or challenging situation. The “baby” of positive psychology to me is that our internal lens is powerful and malleable and we should seek to shape it in ways that serve our lives as well as the greater good. The “bathwater” for me is that despite this truth, there are other truths that feel even truer that positive psychology doesn't seem to fully acknowledge. Ellen Langer rightly points out that many of us convolute inconvenience as tragedy. As practiced catastrophizer, I am guilty as charged. I will readily admit that catastrophizing is a habit worth breaking. But I think the danger of convoluting tragedy as inconvenience is just as significant, if not more so. It is crucial to take time to mourn sad things. A meditation teacher once said to me, “grief is the admission ticket to the present moment." You can't skip grief. You can't just scratch heartache off the to-do list. I also believe in my core that sometimes external change is as important as the internal change. How you find the clarity to know when it’s time to go is still incredibly elusive, however.
There is a lot of wisdom I would like to glean from positive psychologists, but I hope to do so from the perspective of honoring and celebrating the shadow parts of myself. I want to dive into the nugget of truth, but please hold the Happy Meal.