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Just Be Positive At All Costs!! The Best Policy?

Sometimes I get scared or depressed and that’s the way it is. I’m not going to fake it to myself.

 

In the early 2000s a member of my family whom I love dearly (obviously) was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. Everyone who knew her was devastated of course, particularly as her sister had died from the same affliction several years before. This family member, let’s call her ‘Eva’, was given a grave prognosis - a 20% she’d survive four years. We told ourselves, each other and friends or acquaintances that Eva was tough as nails and unquestionably, objectively, easily in the top 20% by pretty much any standard - she’d beat the odds. So far we’ve been right. It’s been ten-plus years and Eva’s doing great; traveling, enjoying life and dealing with the treatments in the same way she deals with everything else- tough as nails.

Honestly, I think Eva took the news better than the rest of us. She’s always tackled life with a cheerful but fervent pragmatism, trusting in logic and rationality above all else and this was no different. A number of friends and relatives were confounded by Eva’s perpetuation of an unshakably rational approach to and despite the diagnosis. Much to their bewilderment (and often dismay) she’d kindly decline invitations to religious functions meant to soothe her concerns through faith. Just as she’d pass on the endless series of folk remedies, teas, supplements, herbs, homeopathic solutions and cure-alls they’d heard or read about (all of which had been ignored or suppressed by Western Medicine).

Whenever someone would suggest to me some sure-fire panacea that had cured a friend of a friend, I’d ask Eva about it and she’d chuckle and quote the specific clinical studies done on said physic, determining its ineffectiveness. Regardless of whatever ritual they endorsed or medicant they promoted though, well-wishers would almost inevitably maintain that Eva “stay positive”. It became a sort of mantra.

Being a realist and being aware of the apparent correlation between outlook and illness that have been identified, at first Eva did attempt to always “stay positive” for the sake of her health. Then, one day we were discussing the hyper-emphasis on positivity and she said, “I’m done with that bullcrap*. I’m tired of it. Trying to stay positive all the time is exhausting. Sometimes I feel sick and bad*, so I’m going to feel sick and bad*. Sometimes I get scared or depressed and that’s the way it is. I’m not going to fake it to myself.” *Edited for decorum.

I’ve always been wary of generalizations or advice that works for everyone, so what she said got me thinking. I soon came to the conclusion that Eva was right. Not that anyone should wallow in bleak, despairing pessimism but some of us aren’t good at just staying positive in tough times. In fact, I think some of us are incapable of it. And that’s OK.

The more I thought about it the more I was convinced that Eva’s against-the-odds thriving survival was due both to her astounding grit and the courage she had to deal with the cancer in the manner that worked best for her. She’s a generally positive person but being diagnosed with (probably) terminal cancer and gutting out years of surgery and chemo was exceedingly unpleasant at times. Investing precious allotments of her finite energy reserves into Positive Thinking No Matter What!, was, as she said, exhausting.

For years an uncountable procession of motivational speakers and authors have insisted upon positive thinking as an essential, obvious and undeniable condition of success. Proponents include Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Rhonda Byrne - author of The Secret – and scores more. But it seems that Eva is not alone in her not-so-positive assessment of perpetually positive assessment. In the past few years a growing number of authors, mental health professionals and researchers have become less shy with their condemnations of ‘The Cult of Positive Thinking’.

Oliver Burkeman points out in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking that baseless, constant optimism is not only unrealistic, it can be actively harmful. Burkeman tackles the core assertions of just about every self-help book ever written. When people believe it so they can achieve it, visualizing incredibly ambitious goals, they set themselves up for failure. Positive reaffirmations in the mirror every morning can actually hurt your self-esteem. For a decent percentage of the positivist population, visualizing their future success functions as a stand-in for actually doing something about it.

Having confidence is great and can certainly contribute to gaining prosperity but there’s no evidence that simply positively imagining wealth and success has the slightest effect on whether or not a person achieves it. Burkeman suggests that Westerners and Americans in particular have erroneously come to confuse positivity with happiness- and they’re just not the same thing. On that note is the tremendous treatise on the subject – Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America – by Barbara Ehrenreich, which proved something of a revelation for me. I immediately related because Ehrenreich’s bout with breast cancer inspired Bright Sided.

She goes further than Burkeman (though her book preceded his), with razor-sharp and sort of scary observations regarding the national cost of American über-optimism. With solidly evidence-backed precedent, Ehrenreich points out that the American positivity-insistence has (negatively) influenced the philosophy and direction of impersonal Evangelical megachurches and Christianity in general, medicine and the medical community (which was very familiar) and even the economy. Thoroughly as perma-optimism’s avowal that one shouldn’t even consider negative outcomes has saturated the business world, how willing are businesspeople to take something like mortgage defaults on a massive scale into consideration when making choices?

Maybe the best advice to be had here is to look for “real” rather than “positive”, and “generally happy” rather than “optimistic right now”. Eva is living proof of the power in realism.

About the Author

Vanessa Hobbes is a freelance writer and former medical researcher. She writes about anything she finds fascinating in medicine medical field and works with CompHealth. When she's not writing the day away, Vanessa spends her free time tending to her forgiving garden and watching any movie that's either very good or very bad.

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