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Happiness isn't guaranteed, it's a bonus.

I love Shapely Prose. I wish I was smart enough to blog for them, but I am quite content to enjoy their incisive commentary. Like this great post from Snarky's Machine that pulls apart the "follow these steps to a happy life!" nonsense, and calls it out.  Even though I'm an eternal optimist, I've never liked the "think positive!" movement, because it always seems to boil down IRL to a silencing, victim-blaming movement that simply doesn't want to think about anything that might be depressing.  It's populated by people who stop every serious debate with admonitions to "keep it positive/civil/nice!", and prefer to pretend that the world isn't full of issues that need to be examined and discussed, mostly because they are (as the post puts it) comfortable with the status quo, and can't be bothered to put themselves in anyone else's shoes to think about how it isn't all cupcakes and roses for everyone.

This is different from being an optimist, I think.  Being optimistic simply means you're hopeful about the future, whereas being a Positivist means that if things go great, it's all because you're just the bestest, most deserving person ever - no matter that you might be in the right place at the right time, or part of the privileged class/race/gender, it's all because you deserve cookies. Conversely, if things don't work out right for someone else, then it's not the system at fault, but them.  They did something wrong, so they deserved to fail.  They aren't good enough to be happy!  They don't deserve the good life! 

This is the premise of The Secret, too - a nasty, victimizing way of thinking that actively blames people for failure and sickness.  You didn't think positive enough, so now you have cancer, the thinking goes, as if you'd have avoided anything bad by thinking good thoughts.

In each life, challenges fall.  Some are pretty fucking bad.  Some can't be dismissed easily; some are life-changing, and not in a positive way.  I've always hated the idiom "God doesn't give us more than we can handle", because it's complete bullshit.  Clearly, there is no way to "handle" a car crash that leaves you dead; handling the issue is a bit moot at that point.  Things happen.  Shitty things happen.  Life is random, and it's scary.

So, some people make up rules about life, as if they can control the universe.  A comforting illusion, perhaps, but one best kept to oneself.  Applying those rules to other people, and blaming them for their troubles because they didn't follow a ridiculous set of completely made-up rules is some nasty superior shit.  This leads to treating people to whom bad things have happened as somehow morally inferior - the rape victim "asked for it", the person with disabilities is "being punished by God", and therefore poor treatment of marginalized people is justified.  Which, while morally reprehensible, works great for able-bodied people to whom nothing bad has happened - until it does.

My life, despite my disability, is great.  I'm really happy.  Sure, I'm in pain a lot of the time, but I'm happy.  By the rules of the Positivists, though, I should be miserable; my disability is all that counts.  I must have done something to deserve the pain, right? 

How about turning the Positivist thinking upside down?  (Or turning the Positivists on their heads until they get red in the face?) 

It's a nice thing to rejoice in the happinesses we get, no matter how small; happy events and things make us feel good, no doubt about it.  But life is random, and being "deserving" has nothing to do with success.  Lots of people who are very deserving of nice things don't get them, whether through bad luck, or systemic institutionalized prejudice that keeps them down.  Bad things will happen.  Sometimes, they'll really get us down, maybe for years.  But taking the small things that do give you happiness can maybe give you the strength to have empathy for others going through similar issues, instead of shunning them like they're contagious.  There is strength and comfort in knowing others have troubles - look at the number of people on the 'net that have formed groups and sites to support each other and provide safe spaces for discussion where they will not be overwhelmed by lecturing Positivists who blame them for not "pulling up their bootstraps" and talking at them as if they're small, stupid children who have never heard that advice before.

Finally, the worst thing about the Positivists is that I'm not allowed a fucking bad day.  I want to be grumpy, snide, and angry sometimes, and that's uncomfortable for people.  There are people that are so determined to silence angry voices that they'll pull out every derailing tactic in their arsenal just to shut you up.  But, even as an inveterate optimist, I see value in anger, in depression, in feeling bad.  Feeling bad is a natural response to physical, mental, or emotional issues that are getting you down.  Anger is a great response to institutionalized oppression, even if a lot of people really wish you'd stop talking about it and let them get back to their insulated lives, oblivious to the harm the status quo is doing to large numbers of disenfranchised humans.  Because people who buy into "positive thinking" all seem to have one thing in common - they can ignore uncomfortable issues because they aren't affected by them.  It's easy to ignore racism and wish people wouldn't point it out when you are unaffected by racist thinking and actions.  It's easy to ignore sexism when it doesn't do you any harm.  It's easy to not care about disability issues when you can climb steps without a second thought.

It's easy to live without empathy.

But it doesn't make you deserving of nice things; it makes you a self-serving asshole.

Think social justice, not positive.  The real secret to life and happiness is that we're all in this together.


( 22 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
Apr. 19th, 2010 06:20 pm (UTC)
I always thought Dale Carnegie was full of crap when he said: Live as if you were happy and that will tend to make you happy. Isn't pretending to be happy the same as lying? Oh well.... Einstein (or was it Feynman?) was better at this sort of thing: When Life hands you lemons, stick some electrodes in them, and you've got a battery.
Apr. 19th, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
I think that depends on your definition of happiness. I believe happiness is a choice one makes and is something internal. It has nothing to do with wealth, fame, looks, health, etc., but is an attitude, not just a feeling. I see no dichotomy between the two quotes in your post. In both cases, one is choosing a positive outcome. I believe one is choosing to be positive, rather than pretending to be positive.

The problem with the Positivists is that they are assuming the outcome of happiness is an outward reward. I believe happiness is a path, not a destination or, even more trite, a prize.
Apr. 19th, 2010 11:04 pm (UTC)
Ditto on this-- I continually choose (often with great effort) to not let things bother me at work, and so a coworker and I, living through the same events, will often have totally opposite takes on them. Someone comes in and is a jerk to us, and I try to think about why that person is so rude, and usually can rationalize that it has nothing to do with me and so it shouldn't concern me. My coworker will obsess over how rude the person was and become quite angry that people will treat us so poorly.
I rarely go home stressed and unhappy, and she usually does.
However! Conversely! I also am lucky enough to have fairly normal (well, for values of whatever that means) brain chemistry. This coworker is undergoing treatment for a very complex series of illnesses, diagnosed at first as OCD, then depression, then bipolar disorder, and now they think it might be related to her thyroid (and the thyroid medication is the first one to have any real positive noticeable effect, in two years of treatment). Obviously, we've got different outlooks on life, because we're very different people, but how much of my relatively sunny disposition can I chalk up to my fortunately much more normal brain chemistry? It's an unexamined privilege. I know sometimes my coworker simply cannot stop focusing on negative things-- it's a form of OCD she's suffered with since childhood. She very obviously gets in moods she cannot control and nothing she can do is going to derail her negative thinking. I watch this happen and I can see it's not normal, and she's not able to control it.
So I sure as hell never tell her to just cheer up. I know it's not that simple. And I know I'm lucky that I even have the option of choosing to be happy.
So I do. I enjoy the hell out of that option, and I am grateful for it.
Apr. 20th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
And therein lies part of the problem. There is no one definition of happiness--each person defines it differently. It ranges anywhere from Charles Schulz's Happiness is a warm puppy to Conan the Barbarian's Seeing your enemies crushed under your feet and hearing the lamentations of their women. OK, that is a bit extreme...but it illustrates the point.

I am unconvinced that happiness can be generated via sheer willpower. Brain chemistry being what it is, there are some people who need something more than being told "Choose Cheerfulness".... Whether the majority of humanity can "Choose Cheerfulness" or it simply happens to work for several vocal people, I don't know...
Apr. 19th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
I listen to Cogknitive Podcast and most recently Dr. Gemma stated "Life right now is a test, its not the final though". I thought that was a good analogy for life in general. Its got trials and tribulations and tests...if it didn't...I think we'd be a pretty dull species.
Apr. 19th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)
I think there is something to be said for not ruminating on one's problems, but that might be my therapy history talking. ;)
Apr. 19th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
Ruminating is the death-spiral, whereas acknowledging that life is not always unicorns and rainbows is probably reasonably healthy. :)

But I've taken years sometimes to get over particular things, and talking about them, sorting them out, and thinking about them from all angles is healing for me. Being told to "get over it" means someone else doesn't want me harshing their squee, not that I don't have a legitimate reason to feel upset about something.
Apr. 19th, 2010 08:38 pm (UTC)
Oh, totally. I do think your post is spot-on, BTW.
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)
Sometimes it is useful to really, carefully think things through, even several times... The key is to stop when you are bordering on perseveration and simply stuck in an endless pit of wallowing.
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC)
I think that's a good distinction, and there's definitely a difference between considering and wallowing.
Apr. 19th, 2010 08:34 pm (UTC)
I have recurrent clinical depression. So yes, thinking things through and analyzing to see if my emotions fit the facts is very valuable - but also avoiding the endless downward spiral.
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
Although I don't generally believe in the Lalalalala! I''m not seeing/hearing anything bad approach to life, there is some merit to the concept of using neurolinguistic programming to at least improve one's outlook.
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC)
Did you read Bright-Sided? It's about this exact issue, and it's genius. Absolutely needed to be said, and needs to be taken seriously. Positivists infuriate me. At best, they're disingenuous; at worst, they can be manipulative and actually abusive. To me, it's a way of thinking that is the polar opposite of empathetic, and is absolutely un-Christian. All that matters is that you get yours, whatever it is that you think the world owes you for your "positive" energy. And if you can shanghai other people into believing it too, so much the better. Bleh. It doesn't work that way. Yes, it's frightening. I freely admit that. Yes, it's disordered. Yes, some people do get far more than their fair share of trouble and grief. And other people get far less. But being grateful, humble, generous, and helpful goes much further in the world than being smug, supercilious, and aggressively cheerful, and demanding that others follow suit.
Apr. 19th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC)
i'm like you, a chronic pain endurer. and it would be really easy to whine about it always...but that isnt my whole life, as it isnt yours.

i'm blessed. i'm finally getting some of my medical issues taken care of, i have a wonderful husband who loves me, and two beautiful children. and occasionally have really good happy days where i just want to jump around squeee'in for the joy of it. it doesnt mean i dont have pain those days, it just means emotionally its a good day.

i think the most fun thing i have learned is that my bad day does not trump anyone elses' good one, nor does someone else's bad day trump my good one. but if i'm informed of a bad day, i can absolutely have empathy for that bad day.

i think what i'm babbling towards is that yep, crappy things happen to good people. and good things happen to crappy people. and its all in line with what the universe wants. and that husbands CAN learn that sometimes its ok to just accept rather than ask over and over how they can fix things annoying the snot out of their wives. ;)
Apr. 20th, 2010 03:55 am (UTC)
I just wanted to say thanks. I also suffer from chronic pain and its good to see someone who not only deals with it openly but still thrives in their life. For a while I thought it'd hit the end of the road with the level of pain I was in, but it has eased up a lot for the moment and I'm gonna use this time for all it's worth. I heard a lot of the "think positive" crap and "remember what you can do and don't worry about what you can't anymore". That's a hard pill to swallow thanks, when you go from being a fitness instructor to having trouble walking without a limp in a matter of months.
I think empathy is a very valuable lesson that needs to be taught in schools or something as it seems to be lacking in general society. You know, some times we don't want you to "solve all of our ills with you nuggets of wisdom". We just need a friend to understand and be there for us.
Apr. 20th, 2010 04:35 am (UTC)
I have grumpy days. I have daye where I am angry and snide. Where I am so fatigued that U hate everyone and everything. I allow myself to have these days because if I didn't I would end up and angry bitter old hag. It would slowly build up and poison me. So I accept it, and experience it, and it works its way out of my system.

Denying things doesn't make them not exist. Wouldn't it be lovely if the Positivists could 'happy' away all the big nasty things in life?
Apr. 20th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
It's easy to live without empathy.
But it doesn't make you deserving of nice things; it makes you a self-serving asshole.

Apr. 20th, 2010 09:17 pm (UTC)
Snarky's Machine wins with “I am the court jester of my own life!”

It's my life, so I may be the Queen, but I'm also the Chief Bottle Washer too. While the Queen might be happy, the Bottle Washer is allowed a bit of a grump from time to time.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:25 am (UTC)
I agree with your post, and I must say this line is the best ever:

Clearly, there is no way to "handle" a car crash that leaves you dead; handling the issue is a bit moot at that point.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
I always enjoy reading your Blog :)

I think that there is some validity to "thinking positive" (i.e. you can choose to have a positive/happy reaction and be tough enough to persevere through just about anything aside from a fatal car crash.), but pretending your problems will go away because you are sitting around thinking happy thoughts while doing nothing to solve them is just ridiculous.
May. 19th, 2010 10:27 pm (UTC)
One day I should get my own soap-box.

The issue is not "thinking positive" or "visualizing happiness". These are both utter crap, and can't fix one's life. The issue is that we should all accept that happiness isn't a resting state. Being happy all the time is just as mentally/chemically abnormal as being depressed all the time. I personally function in a constant state of turmoil, indiscriminate loathing and righteous indignation. Shall I write a book that proclaims if you constantly dissect and disparage every situation it will fix your life? No, because it won't. Maintaining one emotion as a constant norm is not in fact biologically normal. Very grumbly about all the happy people)
( 22 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )

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