Have we Gone Positively Mad?

You would be hard pushed not to have noticed the recent growth in positivity and optimism that has taken hold of the country. Social media feeds are full of motivational quotes, pictures and inspiring stories that were once reserved for the likes of successful entrepreneurs, athletes, hippies and religious cult members.
Self-help books are no longer seen as something to be ashamed of and have actually become best-sellers with people openly reading them in cafes. Why the sudden increase – especially during a recession (albeit one we are slowly coming out of) where we should supposedly be pessimistic, angry and upset? Is it because we are seeing more and more successful people preaching about the benefits of positive thinking? Are there downsides to being constantly positive though? Can it hinder our grasp on reality and make us ignore consequences and dangers or is it the secret to happiness and success? Have we gone positively mad?
It is interesting that this whole positive mental attitude has exploded amongst ordinary people in Ireland over the last couple of years as being in a recession, we should supposedly be angry, upset and despaired. But wasn’t it this positive attitude that got us here in the first place? During his time as Taoiseach Bertie Ahern famously and shockingly said ‘Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide because frankly the only thing that motivates me is being able to actively change something,‘ basically implying that there was no room for pessimists in the country and that optimism and positivity would solve everything. It is clear that it works to a certain degree. But what do you do when asking the universe to bail you out just isn’t working anymore?
So maybe relentless optimism isn’t the way to run a country but what about a business? Some of the most successful entrepreneurs such as Oprah and Richard Branson credit positive thinking, optimism and self-belief as the factors that made them successful above others. Their websites, blogs and twitter feeds are full of inspirational quotes and positive affirmations but do they really believe this themselves or is it a way of inspiring people to believe in and support them? If it is a case that they believe in all that, surely we can follow their example and adapt this way of thinking into our own lives.
I think it would be a common consensus that positivity and an optimistic outlook on life are good traits, to a certain degree. Generally, these types of people tend to look at problems or difficulties in life with an open mind and try to solve them using various options. If they can’t fix the problem then they accept it and move on. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to look at the same problem in a more negative light. They don’t see as many solutions, if they see any at all, and then try to avoid or deny the problem. The optimists approach seems better, doesn’t it? But can there also be negatives attached to positive thinking?
Some psychologists think that it can result in people becoming deluded and losing their grasp on reality. They may end up disregarding consequences and dangers as they are so sure that everything will be alright. But then again, they may be the ones who end up taking the boldest risks and achieving the biggest rewards. For the natural worriers amongst us, this is hard to do and maybe this is why books that encourage you to ‘think yourself positive’ are becoming so popular. Quotes and affirmations that encourage you to think yourself rich, successful or healthy are popping up on Instagram and Facebook feeds everywhere and ‘normal’ people are starting to try and live by these. Of course, having a few favourite quotes that motivate and inspire you to be a better person are fine and often can pick us up if we are stuck in a rut. It’s when people start to believe that just by thinking about something enough they can get something or change something about themselves that opinions start to differ.
positively mad
One of the most controversial ideas is that you can ‘think yourself healthy’ just by being positive. Of course, there is a general consensus that being positive can lead to better heart health and protection from infections such as the common cold. However, some people have gone so far as to suggest that positive thinking can cure a person from more serious diseases such as cancer. It is well recognised that having an optimistic and hopeful outlook is a good thing but you would be hard pushed to find a medical doctor who says it can cure disease, it just makes it easier to cope and get through treatments and bad times. Some experts think that patients being told to constantly have an upbeat attitude can be detrimental as if the treatment doesn’t work then they may blame themselves for not being more positive even if the treatment was never going to work anyways.
On the other hand, it has also been suggested that we think ourselves sick. This phenomenon is much more commonly observed and has scientific backing. The best example is in a clinical trial when participants are either given a drug or a placebo (a sugar pill which has no effects whatsoever). They aren’t told which they are given but they are told what possible side-effects they could experience from taking the drug. It is very common for participants who are taking the placebo to report feeling some of the side effects, even though they aren’t on the drug so there is no reason for them to. They can actually show physical symptoms such as pain, headaches, skin rashes and even altered liver enzyme levels. They can literally think themselves sick and this is called the nocebo effect.
The nocebo effect can also be contagious. For example, nowadays the amount of people saying that they have a gluten or dairy intolerance is rapidly increasing even though they may not have been diagnosed with one. They have heard what the symptoms are and heard other people say they have them and start to experience symptoms themselves even if physiologically they have no intolerance.
It’s clear that what we think has an effect on us. But what about those people who just can’t stand positive thinking. Oliver Burkeman is an American author who has written a book called ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t Stand Positive Thinking’. He believes that constant positivity isn’t the only way to find happiness and that negative thinking plays a role too. He believes that constantly trying hard not to do something (e.g. being negative) sabotages your attempt to do it (like the game where you try not to think of a polar bear for a minute but can’t) so we should learn to embrace it.
Another American author called Barbara Ehrenreich also discusses the downfalls of positive thinking in her book ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World‘. She thinks that it was the unrelenting optimism in the corporate and banking world that caused the 2007 financial crisis. Anybody that tried to speak up about problems was told to shut up or was fired because the belief was that everything would be ok if you willed it to be.
It’s clear that there are a lot of conflicting opinions on how best to be happy and successful but the thing that is obvious is that balance is key. It’s ok to be positive and take a leap of faith every now and then in the same way that it’s also ok to be sceptical sometimes and trust your gut instinct, after all it’s embedded in our DNA. Our ancestors didn’t survive by looking at life through rose-tinted glasses, if they saw a threat then they responded. It’s inbuilt into our brains to worry about things but with the extra load of responsibilities and problems that we have in today’s world then maybe learning how to be a bit more positive is a good thing. Just maybe don’t use it for the basis of running a country’s economy.
(This was my second article published on Intrigue.ie, find the original here).