The Good Life is a phrase from Positive Psychology, although some of you may also recall the comedy series with Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal. In Positive Psychology your reach The Good Life as a result of effective effort, absorption in challenging meaningful activity and practicing mindfulness. That’s a gross simplification, but hopefully gives a flavour of what it is about. It’s seeped into all corners of Western culture, characterised by a focus on positive thinking and a ‘can do’ attitude. Nothing wrong with that, you might think.
Certainly as a way of alleviating depression, anxiety and some other mental health issues, an antidote to repetitive negative thoughts can work well. However, Positive Psychology brings the dangers of ‘positive illusion’, ignoring real tragedy and difficulties in life, and potentially pathologising sadness and ‘negative’ thoughts.
Positive illusion effectively distorts reality. At its most extreme it might incapacitate the ability to self reflect, halt psychological growth, and reinforce prejudice. Negativity, such as that found in sadness or mild depression, may promote reflection and engagement with appropriate guilt, grief or anger. There are things in the world to be sad, angry and upset about and if these emotions are blocked by a need to stay positive, their repression stores them up and later impacts our lives more severely.
I sometimes work with people who try hard to stay positive and want to get away from negative thoughts. Their situation has been made more difficult by the idea that we should quickly recover from tragedy or disappointment with a positive attitude, rather than allow time for ‘negative’ emotions. It is the rejection of the parts of us that are sad, angry, guilty or depressed that can lead to a downward spiral into depression.
There are also issues with the commercialisation of aspects of Positive Psychology, particularly Mindfulness. Mindfulness, in the ancient Buddhist tradition, is about being present to reality by awakening insight into what is, including the roots of greed, lust and ill will. It includes making a social critique that can drive action to effect change. Commercially Mindfulness is often marketed as a means to reduce stress and accept yourself as you are, which can turn into a banal justification for greed, lust and ill will. It may also lead to adapting to things as they are, rather than looking at the social and organisational causes of stress and attempting to change this. For example, if you’re bullied at work, you could accept it and deal with the stress through meditation and breathing. Or you could do something about it, with all the health and confidence benefits that agency brings.
As you may gather, I’m not an enormous fan of Positive Psychology. Not because its ideas are invalid, but because they are only half the picture. Without the shadow side of our nature we live only half a life, unable to flourish as our full selves and uninspired to change the things that bring us all harm.