A few weeks ago I received a comment on my blog accusing me of promoting “the cult of positivity.” To make sure I wasn’t blindly encouraging thinking and actions that could be harmful to others, I did a little research. What I found is that although some believe that positivity is a dangerous “cult” there are as many, or more, who recognize that positive emotions and optimism offer many benefits to a person’s life. Still, it is always SMART to stay awake and aware of both the benefits and hazards of any line of thinking. With that in mind, here’s a quiz to help you discover whether what you believe about positivity is either true or false.
- Positivity is a cult.
FALSE: The Free Dictionary.com defines a cult as: “A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.” Positivity, on the other hand, is a philosophy, attitude or mindset that people choose to live by however and whenever they want. Positivity has no leader unless you consider personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Wayne Dyer or others like them as authoritarian leaders.
- A positive attitude helps us live longer, have a better memory and even sharper hearing.
TRUE: Yale University psychologist Becca Levy, PhD found that happy, positive people generally live longer than those who constantly worry or feel bad about aging. Her work suggests that a negative approach to life is similar to smoking or heavy alcohol use.
- Many of America’s problems result from a focus on positivity.
FALSE: One of the most popular detractors of positivity is Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America. Just one of her claims against positivity is, “The relentlessly optimistic forecasts about subprime mortgages and endless increases in real estate values were the product of the positive-thinking culture.” Yet nearly six years later nearly everyone agrees with Mark Gilbert, author of Complicit: How Greed & Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable. Gilbert lays out facts that show it was “…a conspiracy of greed among bankers, investors, rating agencies and regulators.” Unfortunately as many of us know, greedy people are greedy people, regardless of whether they have a negative or positive approach to life. And to believe that our country is being underminded by those who are overly optimistic, seems far too simplistic for such an issue.
- Positivity suggests you can heal yourself of any illness by just being positive.
FALSE: I’ve actually written another post about this from a personal level that you can read here: The Power of Positive Thinking. However, a big argument for thinking this is true comes from author Barbara Ehrenreich after discovering she had breast cancer. She says that she was told, “If I don’t get better, it’s my fault.” Ehrenreich believes, “It’s a clever blame-the-victim sort of thing.” And while I don’t deny that some people take the extreme approach to positive thinking as a form of “bullying,” just about every one of us has had an opposite experience of being bullied by people who practice extreme forms of negativity, or other thinking that is different than our own. Again, rude and unkind people are rude and unkind people regardless of what kind of thinking they push on to you when you are most vulnerable.
- Happiness makes people more successful and productive.
TRUE: Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage says, “Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving.” He claims, “A positive mindset results in 23% greater energy in the midst of stress, 31% higher productivity, 37% higher levels of sales, 40% higher likelihood to be promoted, and improved longevity.” Of special note, Achor uses the Greek definition of happiness, which is, “The joy we feel striving after our potential.”
- Thinking positive makes us more creative and gives us more options and possibilities.
TRUE: Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. professor of psychology at the University of Chapel Hill, NC and, author of Positivity explains that when people experience positive emotions like love, joy, contentment and gratitude, their minds expand, and they open up to new ideas, are more creative, and are more open minded in general.
- Positive people are naïve and unrealistic about how life really is.
FALSE: According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD and professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, “My students and I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and more adaptive ways.”
Instead, those who challenge the benefits of positivity are likely suffering from what is called “naïve realism.” Ariana Shives from CivilPolitics.org says, “Naive realism… is defined as: “the conviction that one’s own views are objective and unbiased, whereas the other’s views are biased by ideology, self-interest and irrationality.” Unfortunately naïve realism is rampant in our politics and other areas of disagreement around our world in a wide variety of topics.
- Positive emotions lead to resilience, better coping skills and high life satisfaction.
TRUE: Michael A. Cohen from Harvard University and other researchers completed a study in 2011 confirming this assertion along with the statement, “participants who experienced frequent positive emotions became more satisfied not simply because they were enjoying themselves, but because they built resources that help deal with a wide range of life’s challenges.” He goes on to say, “Positive emotions are a powerful source of growth and change, predicting both individuals’ judgments about life and their skills for living well.”
- Positive people are always happy and never have bad things happen to them.
FALSE: Negative things happen to all of us regardless of whether we are positive or negatively biased. But according to the paper The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affects, authored by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, “research has demonstrated that optimistic individuals…use humor and positive reframing, instead of denial, when coping with highly stressful events.” As I’ve written about before (Beyond Suffering—What The Buddha Teaches About Tragedy), rather than deny that bad things happen, positive people instead choose to find ways to cope that allow them to move past the negative experience with the least amount of trauma and the greatest amount of recovery.
10. Happy people have better and longer marriages and friendships.
TRUE: According to the paper The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affects, “Happy individuals tend to have fulfilling marriages and to be more satisfied with their marriages. Indeed, several writers have suggested that satisfaction with marriage and family life is the strongest correlate of happiness.” The paper goes on to say that, “respondents like happy people much more than they like their less-than-happy peers. Happy and satisfied individuals are judged as more physically attractive; more intelligent and competent; more friendly, warm, and assertive; less selfish; more moral; and even more likely to go to heaven.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD and author of The How Of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want continues with, “The benefits of happiness include larger social rewards (e.g., more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (e.g., a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain) and even longer life.”
11. Positivity makes people more generous and kind.
TRUE: Happy people appear to volunteer at higher levels than their unhappy peers for charity and community service groups, including religious, political, educational, and health-related organizations (Krueger, Hicks, & McGue, 2001; Thoits & Hewitt, 2001)
There are likely more claims both for and against positivity than what I have covered here but I think most of us get the idea. Of course as with anything, ideas can be distorted or taken to the extreme in ways that are not helpful, so moderation and balance is usually wise. Plus, my intention here on SMART Living is never to tell you what to think, only that you should think, stay aware, and make up your mind and your world in a way that brings you to the most peace, contentment and fulfilling life possible. Ultimately, only you can decide how that journey unfolds.
Cohen, et. al: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3126102/
Benefits Of Frequent Positive Affect: http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/wp-content/themes/sonjalyubomirsky/papers/LKD2005.pdf