On false positive thinking

Photo by Brady. 2015.

“I know happiness doesn’t come from a relationship or a career, Brady… I try to be a good person, you know? I do my best and I just… am I depressed?” 

Oh positivity. That pesky and plucky idea. Supposedly, with the right positive, upbeat, encouraging message, yourself and others will be happy. If you aren’t happy, then it’s easily fixable, think the right thought and you can simply be happy and be the best you can be; for, it is the best. Happiness, in this plucky idea, is the ideal, unquestioned, positive state.

Insidiously though, positivity works. For some people, simply thinking happy thoughts, or reminding themselves of their blessings, helps evoke a sense of happiness and contentment. There are many people for whom a gentle reminder to think positive is all it takes to feel better. It is a vaguely nebulous feeling, this better, because it isn’t a graspable feeling itself, but a felt sense of movement away from one thing and onto another thing.

Being positive moves something away, shifts the focus, distracts.

Which isn’t to say that a distraction at all is awful. I don’t deny that positivity can be a beneficial distraction; it is also a beautifully devised saboteur.

A major pitfall to the power of positive thinking isn’t in the theory itself, which I’ll get into the theory’s blind-spots shortly, but in how it is wielded without skill or artful understanding by well-meaning friends, inspirational Instagrammers, #positivity retweeters, and a whole host of well-intentioned coaches, teachers, and advisors.

This is where positivity can blur objectivity: thinking positively and how you want to feel is as much a problem as thinking negatively and how you don’t want to feel.
In the hands of a more trained psychologist, positive psychology can be a particularly useful tool for particular problems. As any behaviorist will note, what is positive is what is added to a particular situation or interaction, and what is negative is what is removed from the same situation. The second mechanical component is that what is added can be either wanted (positive reinforcement) or unwanted (positive punishment), as well as what is removed can be wanted (negative punishment) or unwanted (negative reinforcement). This second component is where a lot of positivity, and the power of positive thinking, gets its pluck; it does something, it adds, it feels somehow more tangible. More doable. More concrete.

However, to a trained behaviorist and psychologist, all negative and positive tools can be used equally, with more or less precise aim and efficiency. Mostly though, positive psychology, and those neighboring ideas of setting a positive intention, focusing on gratitude, counting blessings, taking a strength inventory, and others, all have a narrow range of efficacy, because, as I mentioned above, it’s only a quarter of the possible behavioral interventions. Narrower still because of confirmation bias, and not seeing how positivity itself can be a problem.

Being positive moves something away, shifts the focus, distracts.
Confirmation bias, to take a slight tangent, is that other pesky idea that, to be succinct, is searching for a particular answer and discrediting all information that doesn’t support that particular answer. In terms of positive thinking, confirmation bias is thinking that positivity is the right way to think, so negativity is to be dismissed and discredited.

This is a bold statement, and I don’t write it purely theoretically, but from my own experience of doubling-down on positivity. Over the span of my career, I have come to realize in doing therapy with a firm desire to help others become better, with thinking more positively, that positivity itself got in the way of my helping. I didn’t consider that positive over-thinking could at all be problematic until, well, I started seeing the favored imbalance of thought as one that would leave many people struggling with their feelings that were anything other than positive.

This is where positivity can blur objectivity: thinking positively and how you want to feel is as much a problem as thinking negatively and how you don’t want to feel.

I was very fortunate in my clinical training to have amazingly sharp and deft supervisors. Perhaps sensing my own inclination to favor positive thinking, and an unshakeable idea that I, as a therapist, can know what’s best for others to think, my first supervisor told me, with unparalleled clarity, “anyone can give hope, but giving hope isn’t the answer to every problem.”

Narrower still because of confirmation bias, and not seeing how positivity itself can be a problem.
I didn’t initially get the meaning of my supervisor’s statement. Admittedly, I began my clinical career guilty of rushing to positive thinking too soon. I had many moments as a clinician when I rushed to give positive thinking, to giving the pep talk, because I nervously didn’t want to get into and examine someone else’s pain, their inner torment, powerlessness, despair, rage, fury, or grief. I would earnestly give positive affirmations, simply thinking it was what was best. Assuming, that is, feeling better is what is best, not dwelling on what was bad. If I could get someone to think differently, to feel differently, and by differently I meant better in my own definition, then I had done my job. However, I didn’t do my job when I was simply being positive.

It is very easy to sabotage another person’s growth, with your own hubris, from believing you know what is best for another person. It took me a long time to see my own positivity, my confirmation biases, my hubris, to make peace with them, and to be more cautious and precise in my usage of positive thinking, and to be aware of the root of my own desire to favor positive thinking which can setup further problems down the road.

Thinking positively, and encouraging others to think positively, is earnest in its aim to help, yet false, because positivity is no truer than negativity. However, the desire to think positively, for oneself to be more positive, or for another to be more positive, is a setup for difficulty when those positive affirmations don’t exactly materialize and happiness isn’t readily attained. A setup that someone who thinks positively might not see or even consider.

If I were to encourage your thinking in any way, it would be to see that those setting themselves or others up to think more positively may only have that tool for now, may only need that tool for themselves, and may not have the answer to every problem, and that may be okay for them. Thinking positively does a lot, but it doesn’t do everything. Being able to see what is lacking, what limits are there, what isn’t addressed, is to go beyond positivity; thinking beyond positivity isn’t better, it is simply beyond it, and there is a lot of valuable thought beyond thinking positively.

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