I don’t have many regrets in life. Most of the worst events in my life were either outside of my control or I made the best decision I could with the information and resources that were available to me. If I could go back in time and give myself advice (assuming my former self would accept my advice) I would encourage myself to take my mother’s advice and have a more positive attitude. Much of our quality of life is determined by our attitude towards events and optimistic people are happier and more successful in their endeavors. Optimism is healthy, better for our skin, and quality of life is improved because less of life will get a positive person down. While it’s good to be optimistic and we should strive towards that mindset it’s also true that people can overdo it and positivity can be toxic at times.
One of my great frustrations with Midwestern American society is that wherever you go and whatever you’re doing, people will ask “how’s it going?”. I’ve written about this before in past blog posts, but this one goes more in depth.
I see “how’s it going?” as the Midwestern equivalent of “Aloha” in Hawaii. We all decided at some point that we’re going to constantly (and disingenuously) ask everyone the state of their well being and always say something along the lines of “good, how’re you?”.
Someone’s mom could die, they could have the flu, or lose their job and the answer always has to be “good, how’re you?”.
To share the truth would upset people and even though people rarely think of this aspect of our lives, we all know that the person asking doesn’t actually care. I assume most people are probably doing fine on a day to day basis. It’s not every day that tragedy, or conversely great triumph, occurs. The average person is content with their life regardless of how it’s actually going because humans are adaptable creatures. There’s a fascinating study from the 80’s where scientists would page people and they would rate how their life is going at any given moment. The overwhelming majority of people rated their lives around a 7 out of 10. There were swings in the ratings, but people always went back to around a 7.
I think there’s something sad about trying to maintain happiness and positivity at all times. In college, I took a class on Mythology and the Professor argued that heaven is probably boring. If nothing bad ever happens then you have no reason to cherish the good moments in your life. The lesson has been shared across many movies and TV shows over the years. The one that sticks out to me is from South Park.
In the South Park episode, Butters develops a crush on a girl that pretends to be his girlfriend. He’s sad, but he doesn’t want to give in to sadness because he loves life. He sees his sadness as beautiful because it meant something made him really happy at one point. Sadness makes him feel alive and human so he takes the bad with the good.
That begs the question, if every day is wonderful, then is any day truly wonderful? We shouldn’t lean into pessimism and the darkness of the world, that is absolutely a worse alternative than toxic positivity, but we should learn to accept that bad things happen. It’s perfectly healthy to feel sad or angry when something sad or outrageous occurs. It’s unhealthy to feel nothing.
Toxic positivity involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy. It comes from feeling anxiously uncomfortable with negative emotions. It is often well-intentioned but can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.
There’s a big difference between toxic positivity and optimism. Optimism lets you accept that sometimes life is hard, but “this too shall pass”. Time is both an ally and an enemy, but at the end of the day everything eventually passes. Break ups, illnesses, and that feeling of absolute sorrow after losing a loved one will eventually pass. At the same time, our cute kids eventually grow up , our good health can deteriorate, and you and your best friends can drift apart. Appreciate the good times you have as well as the bad. Give yourself permission to just feel bad once and a while.