Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Positive Thinking and Other Harmful Advice

Evolution has shaped our physiology and behavior in a way that causes us to reliably avoid things that are uncomfortable, painful, or threatening.  If one of our ancestors encountered a lion in a particular area of the savanna, a set of uncomfortable bodily sensations would be set off that would make it more likely that the individual would run or protect themselves.  If they happened to find themselves strolling near that area again in the future, those same sensations would show up as soon as they recognized the familiar scenery, making it more likely that they would stay away.  The opposite is true for pleasant experiences.  Things like food, sex, and mild temperatures set off very pleasant bodily sensations, and so we are more likely to seek those things.  These bodily processes are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom and there's a reason: It's simple, and it works.

As modern humans, along with our ability to think and speak in more complex ways, we have become increasingly more sophisticated in how we talk about and relate to our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations.  We've given them names like "anxiety," "joy," "anger," and "sadness." And somewhere along the line, in our infinite wisdom, we declared that not only are the situations that trigger painful sensations dangerous, but the painful sensations themselves are dangerous.  Likewise, we declared that the pleasant ones are what we should all be striving for as we live our lives, they are what life should about.

The cultural message, over time, has boiled down to this:  1. Unpleasant thoughts and emotions are bad, and pleasant ones are good.  2. If you have unpleasant thoughts and emotions, then there is something wrong with you, and you need to eliminate them before you can live a good life.  3. If you are experiencing pleasant ones, then that means you are living a good life."  Boiled down even further, it looks like this: "Feeling good = living good."

This is horseshit.  But it is culturally supported, widespread, dangerous horseshit.

As you move through your day, take a look around you and notice just how well supported this message is.  Nearly every advertisement you will see promotes the idea that "if you purchase this item, you will feel good, and therefore life will be good."

Most life advice dispersed to you by experts on TV and in magazine articles will come in the form of this message.  And lastly, in the science world, we have built entire fields upon this assumption.  Most of your trusted psychiatrists and psychologists believe it so thoroughly that they don't even recognize that they are making the assumption in the first place.

From these fields, based on this "feel good" assumption, we have an ever increasing industry of phychopharmacology and the promotion of therapies and techniques that implore you to go to war with your own thoughts and emotions.

Not every culture thinks this way.  This is, for the most part, a Western, industrialized view of how life should be (or feel).  But how did this idea get to be so widely accepted by Western culture? One of the simplest and most direct ways for ideas to become widespread cultural assumptions is for them to be passed around in the form of common phrases.  So what I'd like to do now is pick out just a few phrases and pieces of advice that I find to be fairly common and widely accepted, and take a good honest look at them.  As I lay these phrases out and share my thoughts on them, see if you can put aside what you've learned about pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and emotions, and what seems to be "the right way" to deal with them, and take a look at what your experience actually tells you about them.
“You should feel happy” & “You deserve to feel happy.”
Feeling good or happy is not the natural, normal, healthy state of human existence.  In fact, feeling that way all of the time or even the majority of the time is not normal.  Look around you at other life on this planet.  Most complex organisms surrounding us live their lives one threatening, fearful experience to the next.  Why should it be the case that with all of the frightened, anxiety-laden animals on this planet, humans should be or deserve to be happy, calm, and serene.  I would argue that if anything, we should be in more distress.  We alone have the capability to imagine, remember, compare, evaluate, and to love in the way that only a human can love.  Yet, these abilities have a dark side.  If you can feel love for another person, then you will feel sadness and loss when you lose them.  If you can imagine your future, then you can feel disappointment as you look at your current circumstances and find them lacking.  No thought or emotional experience is inherently good or bad, they are simply experiences that go along with being human.  Sadness has every bit as much right to be present in your life as joy.  It is only when we declare these experiences to be good or bad that we begin to struggle with them, and it is at that precise moment that we begin to suffer.
“Do whatever makes you feel happy.” & “Do what feels right.”
However benign or positive this advice seems, to follow it literally is to walk down a dangerous path.  As I mentioned earlier, evolution has shaped our physiology in a way that makes a number of things feel very pleasant, like sex, food, and warmth.  Over the course of our species' history, this has been incredibly useful for our survival.  However,  today, after mastering our environment and gaining fairly easy access to these things (maybe wit the exception of sex), our desire for pleasant feelings remains.  And so, being the clever animals that we are, we've designed more advanced and direct ways to feeling good:  Alcohol, drugs, and cheese doodles, just to name a few.  And we now have things likes diabetes and heart disease, which appear to be found only in modern, industrialized cultures.  And we have epidemics of behavioral problems like obesity, substance abuse, and neglect.  The bottom line is this: Feeling good does not equal living a good life.  If we all did only what felt "right" or made us "feel happy," then nothing meaningful or difficult would ever be accomplished.  Check your own experience.  Look at the most rewarding accomplishments in your life and ask yourself if you felt good the entire time you worked towards them.  I'm guessing the answer is no.  Anything meaningful or difficult, by definition, will feel unpleasant at some point.
“Never regret anything that made you feel good.”
If you think this one is good advice, I'd encourage you to offer it, with a straight face, to someone who was just caught cheating on their spouse, or a CEO who just got busted for stealing millions of dollars from his employees.  I'm willing to bet that what they did felt really good at the time.  This type of pleasure-seeking, reckless, and unapologetic living is reserved for sociopaths, and the “Tanning Mom.”
"Just think positively" or "Don't think negatively."
This one seems to be the most widely accepted of all, most likely due to its simplicity.  It is so widely accepted, that it is the basis for many modern-day psychotherapies.  Negative thoughts go hand-in-hand with negative emotions, so if you just think more positively, or rationally, problem solved... right?  Let's try it out.  Take a moment, and try thinking something really positive about yourself and watch carefully what your mind does with it.  Try something like “I - am - perfect - in - every - way...”

Chances are, your mind came up with at least a few things to remind you of just how imperfect you are, just to keep things balanced.  Shit.  Well maybe the other one works.  If we have a thought we don't like, surely we can choose to get rid of it.  Let's try it with a thought that we don't really care about.  WHATEVER YOU DO... do - NOT - think - about.... a pink giraffe...

I'd bet good money that you are thinking of a pink giraffe.  And if you distracted yourself by thinking about something else, then I'll ask you this:  How did you know that you succeeded at doing what I asked you to do?  "I didn't think about a.... oh shit."

Our minds do not work as mechanically or logically as these phrases suggest. If you truly spend your day attempting to think only positive thoughts, you're mind will be sure to point out the contradictions.  If you spend all of your time and energy trying NOT to think about negative thoughts, you will find that they are all you think about.  We couldn't even make it work with something as insignificant as a pink giraffe.  How is this supposed to work with something like "I am a bad person?"  The answer is: It doesn't.

What seems to be needed here is not a new technique, a new pill, or a new positive phrase to help us eliminate painful emotions and achieve everlasting bliss.  What is needed is a more workable definition of "happiness."  Luckily, the ancient Greeks came up with one, so we don't have to.  It's called "eudaemonia," and it is defined like this: Happiness is doing what is meaningful and important to you.  It views happiness as being a verb, something that we do rather than something that we think, feel, or achieve.  This means that our thoughts and emotions are no longer the yardstick that we use to measure our happiness, they are simply along for the ride.  If you define happiness as being a loving spouse, and on this particular day you feel tired, irritable, or anxious, then happiness means bringing those experiences with you as you do whatever "loving spouse" means to you.  It places happiness directly in your hands, right now in this moment.  And guess what?  As you do happiness, and pursue the things that are important to you, that feeling that we tend to call "happiness" is likely to show up at some point.  It's a nice side effect of doing happiness, but nothing more.  Enjoy it for a moment, and then keep doing the things that are important to you.



  1. Love the last paragraph. Fully agree.
    My only other comment would be about our thoughts....we need to understand just because a particular thought crosses our mind, we don't necessarily need to believe it(act on it, be defined by it). Also, thinking positive thoughts should be changed to finding gratitude in everything. Sue

  2. Absolutely. I have found that one of the most common reactions that people have to learning mindfulness, and learning that they don't necessarily HAVE to do anything with a thought, is one of liberation. I had a client a while back (I'm a training psychologist by the way) who said something like "It's crazy that after all of these years, I'm just now finding out that you can just have a thought and not do anything with it. I had no idea that I had a choice." Thanks for the kind words Sue!