Is the idea of positivity and happiness starting to wear a bit thin for you?

A Sunday Life Magazine article (P. 27) by Nicole Madigan titled ‘Light and Shade’ suggests “It’s time for a backlash against the cult of positive thinking”.

The central theme was that positivity alone isn’t enough and that we need to consider both the positives and negatives of life.

While the pessimists of the world will celebrate this ‘backlash against the cult of positivity’, the scientific evidence strongly suggests that the optimists of this world will continue to live more happy, flourishing and prosperous lives.

World renowned Positive Psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson’s research over two decades has shown there are six vital facts about positivity that we all need to understand (whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist). They are:

  1. Positivity feels good – Fredrickson outlines 10 forms of positivity ranging from joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. When you’re focusing on negativity, you miss the opportunity to feel these wonderful emotions.
  2. Positivity changes how your mind works – it widens the span of possibilities you see, while not looking through the proverbial ‘rose coloured glasses’, positivity can expand your mind.
  3. Positivity transforms your future – by flexing your positivity muscle, the fact that you widen your span of possibilities, this has a direct and positive impact on the way you view you future, which impacts the actions you take in the present.
  4. Positivity puts the brakes on negativity – Fredrickson writes “In a heartbeat, negativity can spike your blood pressure, but positivity can calm it.
  5. Positivity obeys a tipping point – Fredrickson explains that a tipping point is that “sweet spot in between where a small change makes a big difference,” and suggests a ratio of 3:1 (positivity to negativity in our life view) is the tipping point where we gain the benefits from positivity over negativity in a wide range of our lives.
  6. You can increase your positivity – Fredrickson’s research proves that we each have more say than we might think about our choices in being more positive and less negative.

While research by other positive psychologists including Sonja Lyubomirsky shows that we each have a ‘set point’ of happiness that is governed by our genes that equates to approximately 50% of our overall sense of well-being or happiness, what Fredrickson’s research shows is that by working on our positivity, we can have significant control over the remaining 50% of our overall sense of well-being and happiness.

Back to Nicole Madigan’s article, where she quotes the advice from Lifecare counsellor Susan De Campo who suggests “an alternative approach to relentless positivity” which is mindfulness.

De Campo explains that “Mindfulness is about moment-to-moment awareness of present events and not resisting the reality of what ‘is’ at any given time… this awareness is thought to lead to an ability to process challenging or unpleasant feelings in an effective and more functional way.”

So what’s the practical take-away for us all in this discussion about positivity?

First, surely it just makes sense that being more positive more often is going to have more positive impacts on our life than choosing the alternative of being negative.

Second, the science of positivity is not suggesting that we ignore the realities of negative situations in our life – life is about experiencing the wide ranging emotions of being human. The key is in how well equipped we are in our ability to understand what we are feeling and our ability to choose to accept and manage those feelings.

Unfortunately, many of the converging elements that are studied in the field of applied positive psychology are reported in isolation of other elements. That’s what causes some cynicism and confusion. It’s not just about happiness, or positivity, or mindfulness, or meditation, or laughter, or curiosity, or trust, or flow or even intention.

What concerns me is there seems to be an emerging view, bred by this cynicism and confusion over what’s being reported from the field of applied positive psychology, that living a happy, flourishing and prosperous life is not the purpose of life.

That just doesn’t make sense to me – if living a happy, flourishing and prosperous life is not the purpose of life, the alternative is to live a sad, stagnating and impoverished life.

I know which I will continue to choose, and I’m confident you would too.