01 Nov 3 Pitfalls of Positive Psychology
There’s a year in my not-so-distant past that I refer to as The Year of the Zombie. Chronic pain and a chronic inability to function like everyone else led me from doctor to doctor without result and when the next clueless doctor suggested Zoloft, I didn’t argue. (Zoloft works well for a friend of mine. She’s more HER on it than off. Her brain needs it. Mine didn’t.)
Life didn’t get better, it got worse. When I tried to tell my doctor, he suggested exercise. When I told him it took everything I had to crawl out of bed and onto the living room couch, he told me he gets tired after work too but makes himself get on that exercise bike. There was no recognition on his part that the meds had turned my undiagnosed what’s-wrong-with-me depression into a personal hell. I was too ashamed of my inability to “just do it” to realize those weren’t the meds for me. My failure status was confirmed and I wondered if my family would be better off without me.
Too many mornings were spent scrolling through social media on my phone, unable to summon the energy to get out of bed. There I’d be met by rainbows and sunshine proclaiming “Choose Happiness” and “People Are as Happy as They Decide to Be”, and I’d want to scream. I think I’d rather be a waste of space that my family has to deal with, because why be human when you can be a pet rock? This was when I began to despise positive psychology. Take your “Choose Happiness” and shove it where the…well, you know.
Fast forward a few years and there’s a Coursera Positive Psychology course that actually looks good. I know, I was shocked too. Dr. Barbara Frederickson, the woman teaching, seems to know what she’s talking about and it’s not all woo woo or just decide to be happy. My daughter and I take the course together. I’m wary, but intrigued.
When asked what draws me to positive psychology, I give a lame answer about replacing negative thinking, combining it with snarky sarcasm, and calling it realistic psychology. My skepticism shines. But when she expresses concern over those misrepresenting or misusing the idea of positive psychology, I’m all in. “For some,” Frederickson says, “knowing how to pursue happiness effectively is a lifelong mystery.”“For some, knowing how to pursue happiness effectively is a lifelong mystery.”-Frederickson Click To Tweet
Challenge accepted. Let’s solve this mystery and yeah, maybe positive psychology has its place. But first we have to know what not to do. Dangers are aplenty in this pursuit, because humans tend to like the quick fix bandaid slap. Watch out for the three pitfalls Dr. Frederickson shared. Let’s illustrate them with a few of the “inspirational” quotes that sucker punched my zombie self.
Pitfall 1: Banishing All Negativity
Negative emotions aren’t a whole lot of fun but they’re real and they do serve a purpose. We want the positive to outweigh the negative (by quite a bit, but that’s another post) but we can’t, and shouldn’t, banish negative emotions. We must allow ourselves and others to be human. (“I’m only human and I bleed when I”- Oh, sorry. Everything’s a song.)
Pitfall 2: Forced Positivity
If you’re forcing yourself to be constantly happy and stuffing down other emotions, you’re not really happy. And all those non-happy feelings are eventually going to bubble up and over and ain’t nobody going to be happy about that. (Thar she blows!)
Pitfall 3: Overindulgence in Physical Pleasures
Going after only positive emotions, doing whatever it takes to make you happy, leaving behind anything or anyone that requires work or commitment- positive psychology isn’t an excuse for narcissism and self indulgence at the expense of meaningful pursuits, contributing and being there for others, and the greater good.
A little knowledge of positive psychology can cause more harm than good, but don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Life is not always positive, happiness can’t always be chosen, and those stupid memes still make me want to scream. But this positive psychology thing may have more than a few clues to help us with the real happiness mystery. I’m willing to give it a go. Who’s with me?