[ultimatemember form_id="1168"]

Positivity’s over-rated and happiness is just too thin. It’s time to rethink wellbeing.

SpotifyApple PodcastsiHeartRadioGoogle Podcasts

Something’s wrong in the state of wellbeing

Wellbeing is a cultural touchstone.  Yet, despite decades of positive thinking and the active promotion of happiness, depression and anxiety are at unprecedented levels.  With the failure of the wellbeing industry’s focus on happiness and positivity, it’s time to rethink what we mean by wellbeing. In part two of this article, I’ll introduce a new model of wellbeing.  But, first, I want to explain why positivity is overrated and happiness is too thin a foundation for wellbeing.

In recent years, happiness and positivity have intruded into our lives, heralded as the panacea for all our ills.  Depressed?  Think positive!  Anxious?  Think happy!  Angry?  Stressed?  Confused?  Wouldn’t you rather be positively happy?  I’m not an advocate for negativity and melancholia, but really.  Happiness and positivity are at the heart of a multi-billion dollar wellbeing industry that spans the globe beyond⁠1. It’s a version of wellbeing that informs self-help books, human resource management, and some forms of counselling and psychotherapy.  Yet we’re probably more miserable and anxious now than we’ve ever been⁠2.  Which begs a question:  in our search for happier lives, are we all barking up the wrong proverbial wellbeing tree?  Is there more to wellbeing than just happiness and positivity?

An obsessive focus on positivity

Our current obsession with happiness and positive thinking began to evolve over a hundred-and-fifty years ago.  Across the USA, people in religious Calvinist communities began falling ill to a new condition called neurasthenia.  Characterised by back problems, digestive complaints, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and melancholy, neurasthenia was most likely a stress-reaction to Calvinism’s strict and disciplinarian  demands⁠3.  Carrying aloft the torch of liberation, a tiny anti-Calvinist rebellion swept across America promoting a new positivity.  It was a crusade that would eventually sweep across the globe.

By the 1950s, this rebellion had grown into the ‘New Thought’ movement, under the aegis of the Church of Christian Scientists.  Converts preached the power of positive thinking to overcome an immense spectrum of life challenges, from romantic failures to cancer.  As the bestselling author Louise L. Hay put it, you can heal your life through the power of positive thought. Before whispering the disclaimer, ‘As long as you try hard enough (any failure is on you)’.  Other ideas have blended in, creating an intoxicating pot-pourri of hope and glory.  

The Power of Attraction

Take the mystical law of attraction, peddled at workshops throughout the world.  We’re told that positive thinking can bring you the object of your desire. Take the money manager workshops where participants are encouraged to chant “I’m an excellent money-manager!”. Participants imagine being rich, in order to become rich at some point in the future.  Of course, the only person in the room likely to make any money is the one with the mic up on stage, leading the chant (while hiding a smirk up his sleeves and counting the gate receipts).  Of course, money is just one example – the object of desire can be anything.  Yet, despite thinking positively about vintage Rickenbacker guitars and the Sunbeam Alpine sports car, I remain deeply skeptical. After all, I’m still awaiting the miraculous appearance  of said guitar and sports car.

Another variant of the law of attraction sees the universe manifesting whatever you need, whenever you need it.  As if by divine providence.  Just when I needed a new job, one came along. The universe always seems to provide⁠4”.  Of course, this ignores the fact that you had to look for the vacancy, fill in an application, and attend an interview in order to get the job.  Attributing causation to mystical forces robs us of our own agency.  And what are we left with when the universe doesn’t provide and positive thinking doesn’t come up with the goods?  Most likely a sense of failure or worthlessness.  Grade D – Not good enough. Must try harder”.  If so, is this kind of positive thinking really going to enhance your sense of wellbeing?  I’m skeptical, it’s true.

Is positivity even helpful?

A critical question also remains unanswered:  does positive thinking really lead to enduring change?  There’s no rigorous evidence that supports the claim.  Is it more likely that positive thinking just keeps a lid on the difficult things we label ‘negative’?  People regularly recommend lists of self-help books. They extol the virtue of positive thinking and marvelling at the changes brought about by reading each book. Yet I find myself asking, “If positive thinking is so helpful, why do you keep buying the self-help books?

I’m fairly sure positivity is a part of the puzzle, but it isn’t a magic bullet.

Happiness Rising

More recently, ‘happiness’ has taken a more central role.  We’re still told to “stay positive”, even in circumstances where positivity would be positively irrational.  But new voices are also encouraging us to be happy.

While the ‘New Thought’ movement rebelled against Calvinism, the ‘New Happiness Crusaders’ have a different target in their sights – the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used to identify and diagnose ‘mental illness’.  Psychiatric psychopathology (sometimes called the medical model of mental illness) has many critics, and many of the criticisms are justifiable⁠5.   Although a lot of people derive benefit from psychiatric support, it’s widely agreed that medical psychiatry can dehumanise people.  It’s also doubtful whether a model of physical illness is suitable to explain psychological and emotional distress.  However, as justified as these criticisms are, some of the proposed alternatives to the medical model are – let’s say – questionable.

A new and positive school of thought

Take the new school of positive psychology. Positive psychology has placed happiness at the heart of human wellbeing and psychopathology. Positivity is emphasised  and negativity is airbrushed out of the picture.  Martin Seligman, a leading psychologist in the positive psychology camp has even come up with a formula for happiness:

H = S + C + V, where

H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your innate disposition, C represents your personal circumstances, and V represents everything in your voluntary control.  Thus, your happiness is determined by your innate disposition, your life situation, and the things you can do to adopt a more positive outlook.

Now, it’s not quite E = mc2, but it does have an air of scientific rigour to it, doesn’t it? Well actually, no – it’s a nonsense.  As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out⁠6, what do ’S’, ‘C’ and ‘V’ actually represent?  What are we supposed to be measuring, and what units of measurement are we supposed to be using?  We don’t know, because Martin Seligman doesn’t tell us.  Algebra might look impressive, but that doesn’t make it meaningful.

Time for a new approach?

But even if Seligman’s happiness formula is just an heuristic (a device for explaining something), a question remains.  Is happiness really at the heart of human wellbeing?  Somehow, it just seems rather thin, in contrast to the rich and changing textures of human experience.  As I sit here doing something I truly enjoy, grappling with some fairly complex ideas, seeking the right words in the right combinations to communicate something I’m passionate about, I wouldn’t say I’m particularly happy.  In fact, in the past hour I’ve had moments of frustration, inspiration, doubt, relief and, yes, some happiness too.  But overall, I have a feeling of wellbeing – regardless of how happy I am.  And besides, why privilege happiness anyway?  Our other emotions are important too.

So, if positivity’s over-rated and happiness is too thin, we need to rethink what we mean by wellbeing.  In the second part of this article, I’ll introduce an alternative model of wellbeing, the Wellbeing Calculus.  Until then, don’t give up on happiness and positivity.  Just remember – there’s more to life than that.

 

Notes

1 See, for instance Carl Cederström and André Spicer (2015), The Wellness Syndrome, Polity Press: London; William Davies (2015), The Happiness Industry. Verso:  London

2 Two-thirds of British people surveyed by the UK-based Mental Health Foundation in 2017 reported experience of mental health problems.

3 Barbara Ehrenreich (2009), Bright-Sided:  How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  Metropolitan Books:  New York.

4 This is quite different from environmental psychologist James J. Gibson’s theory of affordances, which describes the possibilities that are available and appear to us within a particular ecosystem, without the need for supernatural intervention (see James J Gibson (2015), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition.  Psychology Press:  Hove).

5 For a selection of views, see  Patrick Bracken and Philip Thomas (2001), ‘Post-Psychiatry: a new direction for mental health’ in British Medical Journal; Vicki Coppock and John Hopton (2000), Critical Perspectives on Mental Health, Routledge: London; R.D. Laing, (1990), The Divided Self, 2nd ed.,  Penguin: London; Pittu Laungani, (2002), ‘Understanding Mental Illness Across Cultures’ in Palmer, Stephen (ed.), Multicultural Counselling: A Reader. Sage: London; Suman Fernando (2002), Mental Health, Race and Culture. 2nd ed. Palgrave: Basingstoke; Michel Foucault (1984), ‘The Great Confinement’ in Paul Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader: An introduction to Foucault’s thought. Penguin: London

6 Barbara Ehrenreich (2009), op. cit

References

Patrick Bracken and Philip Thomas (2001), ‘Post-Psychiatry: a new direction for mental health’ in British Medical Journal.

British Psychological Society: Division of Clinical Psychology (2011), Position Statement on the Classification of Behaviour and Experience in Relation to Functional Psychiatric Diagnoses. Time for a Paradigm Shift.

Carl Cederström and André Spicer (2015), The Wellness Syndrome, Polity Press: London.

Vicki Coppock and John Hopton (2000), Critical Perspectives on Mental Health, Routledge: London.

William Davies (2015), The Happiness Industry. Verso:  London.

Barbara Ehrenreich (2009), Bright-Sided:  How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  Metropolitan Books:  New York.

Suman Fernando (2002), Mental Health, Race and Culture. 2nd ed. Palgrave: Basingstoke.

Michel Foucault (1984), ‘The Great Confinement’ in Paul Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader: An introduction to Foucault’s thought. Penguin: London.

James J Gibson (2015), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition.  Psychology Press:  Hove).

R.D. Laing, (1990), The Divided Self, 2nd ed.,  Penguin: London.

Pittu Laungani, (2002), ‘Understanding Mental Illness Across Cultures’ in Palmer, Stephen (ed.), Multicultural Counselling: A Reader. Sage: London.

Mental Health Foundation, Surviving or Thriving? The state of the UK’s mental health (2017).

 

Leave ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ on Apple Podcasts  //  Follow us on social media  //  Subscribe to theQUEST!ON‘s monthly review newsletter // Join the Curious Explorers Club

 

If you enjoyed this - support us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Instagram