What’s Wrong with Being Positive?

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I was introduced to the idea of positivity about two years ago when, after a series of serendipitous events, I ended up at the second Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. I was really nervous because I didn’t know a soul and was scared that the people there might be a little too happy for me to stomach.

Not only did I enjoy the conference, but it also left me wanting to learn more. So from January to July 2015, I traveled to New York City once a month to take a Certification in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP-Flourishing Center). However, even with the training I received, it wasn’t until recently that I became comfortable enough to stand in my positive psychology shoes without feeling scared that someone would think less of me or perhaps even question my intelligence. The looks I would get from people when I tried to define Positive Psychology left me feeling like I was from another planet and that perhaps I was losing touch with reality.

A few months ago I attended the third Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. The opening keynote speaker was Dr. Lea Waters, who is a positive psychology researcher in Melbourne, Australia. She pointed out that being positive is not for the faint hearted. I later watched her TED Talk where she expanded on this. She pointed out that she had been the target of mockery, scorn and hostility for simply choosing to research gratitude and virtues in the workplace. She explained how the same researchers who awarded her a prize for her rigorous research a year previous were now calling her an academic lightweight despite the fact she used the same scientific methodologies. She was devalued because she chose to focus on the positive.

As I sat there and listened to her presentation on the phenomenal work she is doing, it was clear to me that this was not the work of an “academic lightweight”. I have to say I took a great deal of comfort in knowing that if a woman as respected and as intelligent as Dr. Lea Waters was treated unfairly, then it certainly explained why I could be struggling. As I began to talk with more people I realized that others had also shared this experience.

It got me thinking… why do I have such a hard time telling people that I am interested in Positive Psychology and that I use positive interventions in my work? How come I always feel the need to apologize or ramble on to the point that I wish a big hole would open up so I could jump into it?

If you take the time to educate yourself on what positive psychology is all about, you learn very quickly that it is not Happiology. In 2006, Dr. Ben Shahar wrote that Positive Psychology is about “the permission to be human”. Therefore, in order to experience the full range of human experiences and emotions, you must be able to “digest everything without repelling anything”. We can become unhealthy however, when we get stuck in the negative.

In 2014, Dr. Todd Kashdan, also a positive psychology researcher, wrote a book with Robert Biswas-Diener called “The Upside of your Dark Side” that speaks to how focusing on positive emotions alone isn’t enough. He argues “anger makes us creative, selfishness makes us brave, guilt is a powerful motivator and that the real key to success lies in emotional agility”.

Can overly positive people be annoying sometimes? Yes possibly, but no more so than people who are always negative and critical. To argue that focusing on the negative makes you more intelligent or more trust worthy makes about as much sense as saying that focusing on the positive means you have mental health issues.

Positive Psychology is based on reframing our thoughts or zooming out our lens to get a new perspective. It’s about giving us tools so that we can deal with the inevitable challenges we will have in our life and move through these challenges more quickly. It’s about putting balance in a world that bombards us with the negative, and leaves us with the perception that we have to be perfect. It’s about not being scared of someone else’s strengths because it diminishes our own. It’s about believing that if we work together we can make real change in the world.

I am sure we can all come up with theories about why people get so uncomfortable around the topic of positivity and I admittedly have been a little scared of it myself. However, I have learned that choosing to focus on what’s right in the world doesn’t mean we need to avoid any aspect of the human experience.

In the end, what is wrong with being positive? The people I have encountered while on this journey are some of the most well rounded individuals that I have ever met. With all the incomprehensible things going on in the world, are these really the people we need to criticize and express hostility towards? They are kind, intelligent, creative, compassionate, genuine, and helpful… and yes, they get angry too.

-Shauna