May 10

“Toxic Positivity” a Trend That’s Got to Go

In the midst of a rising tide of social hatred, a seeming countertrend, toxic positivity, has also infected this culture. As defined by mental health professionals Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT, and Jamie Long, PsyD, thepsychologygroup.com, this phenomenon is defined as:

…the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

What, then, is positivity without toxicity? Dani DiPirro, blogger at Positively Present:

Positivity is about assessing the situation, understanding your feelings, looking to see if there’s anything you can do to make the situation better, and, if there’s not, doing what you can to make the most of whatever the situation is. It’s not about pretending. And it’s definitely not about happiness.

A new book by therapist Whitney Goodman, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, expands on this topic. From the publisher:  

Every day, we’re bombarded with pressure to be positive. From ‘good vibes only’ and ‘life is good’ memes, to endless advice, to ‘look on the bright side,’ we’re constantly told that the key to happiness is silencing negativity wherever it crops up, in ourselves and in others. Even when faced with illness, loss, breakups, and other challenges, there’s little space for talking about our real feelings—and processing them so that we can feel better and move forward.

But if all this positivity is the answer, why are so many of us anxious, depressed, and burned out?

Five essential points Goodman makes in Toxic Positivity (per nextbigideaclub.com):

  1. Positivity can hurt. “…Positivity itself isn’t toxic. It becomes toxic when used at the wrong time and with the wrong topics. Toxic positivity denies an emotion…”
  2. Complaining effectively“’Having a place to vent’ is actually one of the most common reasons people ask to work with me…To eliminate complaining is not the answer—what matters is improving how you complain…”
  3. Listen, understand, validate, and empathize. “…When you don’t know what to say to someone who is struggling, strive to include these four ingredients in your communication…”
  4. Intent matters. Impact matters more. “…I want you to know that there’s no perfect thing to say. Everyone has their own preferences and sensitivities…”
  5. Stop trying to be happy. “…I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but research shows that the more people see happiness as a goal, the less happy they are…Instead of pursuing happiness, I want you to pursue fulfillment through a value-driven life. A value-driven life makes room for the fact that living in accordance with our values doesn’t always mean feeling happy, but it is in alignment with who we are and what we want.”

“She goes on to argue that relentless encouragement to look on ‘the bright side’ can be a form of gaslighting,” states the Publishers Weekly review, “and even that toxic positivity perpetuates oppressive systems and prejudice (‘discrimination with a smile’). Further elaboration: 

 She backs it all up with copious amounts of research, examples from clients she’s worked with (unfortunately, though, too few of them), and her own life experiences….In a genre dominated by the upbeat, Goodman’s realism both stands out and takes the edge off; as she says, ‘It’s OK if you don’t always say the right thing; you’re not a Hallmark card.’ Goodman matter-of-factly challenges genre status quo, while maintaining respect for its readers.

Feb 26

Rules of Three: How to Live Better

When seeking advice on how to live better, many have found that things in threes, stated succinctly, are often more digestible than longer treatises.

One recent example: Actor André De Shields drew attention last year when, during his Tony Awards acceptance speech, he offered the three rules of longevity he’s learned: 1) Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming, 2) Slowly is the fastest way to get to where your want to be, and 3) The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.

And, maybe you’ve seen the following popular graphic online:

Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz‘s “3 Things” lists what the singer does “when my life falls apart”:

…I cry my eyes out and I dry up my heart…

…close both of my eyes
And sing my thank yous to each and every moment of my life…

take a breath and bow and I let that chapter end
I design my future bright not by where my life has been
And I try, try, try, try
Try again

In other words, 1) grieve, 2) express gratitude, and 3) move forward.

Psychologist Daniel Tomasulo‘s three rules for a positive transformation (Psych Central):

  1. Change takes time.
  2. Notice and allow the changes.
  3. Be the change.

Miriam Tatzel is another psychologist with rules: three for a happier life (Inc.):

  1. Cultivate your talents.
  2. Accept yourself.
  3. Seek out new experiences.

From Success.com, “Author and speaker Denis Waitley shares three guidelines to transform negative anxiety into positive success. Follow these rules and take action now to let go of your stress.

  1. Accept the unchangeable.
  2. Change the changeable.
  3. Avoid the unacceptable.

The recently published book by former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, Three Rules for Living a Good Life: A Game Plan for after Graduation, expands on the following:

  1. Do what is right.
  2. Do everything to the best of your ability.
  3. Show people you care.

But it’s not just the modern world that’s produced rules of three.

Writer Henry James(1843-1916): Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. 

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. 

Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.

Jun 04

Richard Carlson’s “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”

For about two years in the late 1990’s prolific author Richard Carlson‘s (1961-2006) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff–Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life was at the top of the bestsellers list.

Some of the best quotes from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff:

There are two rules for living in harmony. #1) Don’t sweat the small stuff and #2) It’s all small.

True happiness comes not when we get rid of all of our problems, but when we change our relationship to them, when we see our problems as a potential source of awakening, opportunities to practice, and to learn.

Being heard and understood is “one of the greatest desires of the human heart.”

Effective listening is more than simply avoiding the bad habit of interrupting others while they are speaking or finishing their sentences. It’s being content to listen to the entire thought of someone rather than waiting impatiently for your chance to respond.

To a large degree, the measure of our peace of mind is determined by how much we are able to live in the present moment. Irrespective of what happened yesterday or last year, and what may or may not happen tomorrow, the present moment is where you are—always!

Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple realization that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around. As you focus more on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you would rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in the present.

A low mood is not the time to analyze your life. To do so is emotional suicide. If you have a legitimate problem, it will still be there when your state of mind improves. The trick is to be grateful for our good moods and graceful in our low moods—not taking them too seriously. The next time you feel low, for whatever reason, remind yourself, “This too shall pass.” It will.

Even though we often mess up, most of us are doing the best that we know how with the circumstances that surround us.

The need for perfection and the desire for inner tranquility conflict with each other.

I guess it´s safe to say that practice makes perfect. It makes sense, then, to be careful what you practice.

Imagining yourself at your own funeral allows you to look back at your life while you still have the chance to make some important changes.

Jun 23

“Stand Firm” Against Unhelpful Self-Help?

Svend Brinkmann, PhD, is a Danish philosopher and psychologist who believes, according to the publisher of his new book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze Stand Firmthat “(t)he secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others.”

A Psychology Today post by Brinkmann spells out his main recommendations. Click on the link for more specifics:

  1. “Cut out the navel-gazing: The more you gaze lovingly at your navel, the worse you will feel. Doctors call it the health paradox…”
  2. “Focus on the negative in your life: We have been told to be positive for decades, but it doesn’t help…”
  3. “Put on your No hat: Saying ‘I don’t want to do that’ conveys strength and integrity…”
  4. “Suppress your feelings…Adults should choose dignity over authenticity.”
  5. “Sack your coach: Coaching and therapy have become ubiquitous development tools in our accelerating culture…”
  6. “Read a novel – not a self-help book…”
  7. “Dwell on the past: If you think things are bad now, just remember that they can always get worse. And probably will…”

Although I support most of the above, I’m putting on my No hat to the idea of sacking your therapist—unless, of course, he or she isn’t helping you.

A sampling of Stand Firm quotes, the first of which are courtesy of the book review by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz):

I believe our thoughts and emotions should mirror the world. When something bad happens, we should be allowed to have negative thoughts and feelings about it because that’s how we understand the world.

Life is wonderful from time to time, but it’s also tragic. People die in our lives, we lose them, if we have only been accustomed to being allowed to have positive thoughts, then these realities can strike us even more intensely when they happen—and they will happen.

And the following are additional quotes:

If others can’t be sure I will be the same tomorrow as I am today and was yesterday, then they have no reason to trust me or that I will do what I promise and otherwise live up to my obligations. And if I don’t know my own past, if I don’t try my best to establish a link between yesterday, today and tomorrow, then others have no reason to trust me. If I don’t have what [French philosopher Paul] Ricoeur calls “self-constancy,” then neither I nor others will be able to count on me.

Very few will say out loud that their illness has been awful from start to finish and that they would rather not have had to go through it. A typical book title might be How I Survived Stress — And What It Taught Me, but you’re unlikely to find a book called I’m Still Stressed — It’s an Unending Nightmare. Not only do we suffer stress or illness and eventually die, we’re also supposed to think it’s all so enlightening and rewarding.

Jan 06

“You Are Now Less Dumb” by David McRaney

Despite a flippant and self-helpy title, this book is seriously informative. Publishers Weekly, reviewing David McRaney’s You Are Now Less Dumb

In David McRaney‘s 2014 You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself, 15 additional topics to the ones he chose for You Are Not So Smart (2011) are presented.

Publishers Weekly: “The Mississippi-based journalist and blogger ranges far and wide in his explication of various theories of individual and social psychology, in the process shedding light on the personal blind spots that skew reality while also allowing us to navigate it…(P)age after page, readers will be laughing, learning, and looking at themselves in new ways. McRaney is a fine stylist, easily balancing anecdote, analysis, and witty asides.”

Selected Quotes from You Are Now Less Dumb

What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs. Climate scientist John Cook and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky write in their pamphlet, The Debunking Handbook, “A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.” Multiple lines of research back up this advice.

People who take credit for the times when things go their way but who put the blame on others when they stumble or fall are generally happier people.

Don’t put people, or anything else, on pedestals, not even your children. Avoid global labels such as genius or weirdo. Realize those closest get the benefit of the doubt and so do the most beautiful and radiant among us. Know the halo effect causes you to see a nice person as temporarily angry and an angry person as temporarily nice. Know that one good quality, or a memory of several, can keep in your life people who may be doing you more harm than good. Pay attention to the fact that when someone seems nice and upbeat, the words coming out of his or her mouth will change in meaning, and if that same person were depressive, arrogant, or foul in some other way, your perceptions of those same exact words would change along with the person’s other features.

A belief is not more likely to be accurate just because many people share it.

You can see the proof in an MRI scan of someone presented with political opinions that conflict with her own. The brain scans of a person shown statements that oppose her political stance show that the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented that confirms her beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened. Try it yourself. Watch a pundit you hate for fifteen minutes. Resist the urge to change the channel. Don’t complain to the person next to you. Don’t get online and rant. Try to let it go. You will find this is excruciatingly difficult.

The trailer for You Are Now Less Dumb highlights the role of science in making us smarter: