Every Sunday I drive into Santa Monica a little early before I have to teach. You learn to never trust that there won’t be a ridiculous stretch of traffic for no apparent reason in Los Angeles. I use the time to hit the magazine rack at Barnes and Noble. Yesterday I briefly paused in front the of ‘Lifestyle’ section.
Immediately I was accosted by a litany of demands: ‘You are enough.’ ‘Live happy.’ ‘Let yourself be happy.’ ‘Learn to be well.’ ‘7 Steps to your authentic self.’ ‘Rock your best body.’
That was just the first row. I excavated no deeper. It felt like I was back in nursery school: Gold star for attendance! Now go out there and seize the day, blessed one!
Things got worse. Walking to Equinox I passed a dude rocking a cut off tee that proclaimed, ‘I’m into spiritual shit.’ He didn’t see me, however; his head was buried in his phone as he strolled down the street. Later, when leaving Santa Monica, I followed a car with the vanity plate, ICHANT. Apparently she has never seen the car that says, IUSEBLINKERS.
Spirituality and humility have been divorced in the modern version of living a green juice, advanced posturing lifestyle. In Los Angeles some cling to their identity chanting to imaginary animals as fundamentally as the Bible belt clings to their invented taskmaster. That is: they take themselves very, very seriously.
Behind all of this resides a deep fear of inadequacy. Why else would magazines cater to a market always in search of something profound, month after month after issue after issue? Wouldn’t it be profound if we found solace in the moment, aware that while you’re trying to improve, you’re not weighed down by the necessity of perpetual transformation? Does living a ‘spiritual lifestyle’ require announcing it to everyone else?
We all like improvement. Having a positive attitude is helpful; it boosts your immune system, for one, which has a cascade of effects body-wide. But as my colleague Robby Berman wrote on this site, too much positive thinking has adverse effects, such as sapped motivation and unruly frustration. When the world doesn’t work out how you think it should, you get upset at its lack of compliance. The selfie is facing the wrong direction.
What about the opposite way of thinking? Not negative per se, but how about letting a little anger and grumpiness shine through? Turns out this might just yield the best results.
Cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack. Cynics can expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.
The author cites potential pitfalls from excessive positivity: overeating, unsafe sex, binge drinking, gullibility, and selfishness. This is not to argue for baseline aggressiveness. A calm, measured resting face is probably beneficial. While seeing the bright side of things can be a good disposition, forceful reactivity has its place, one that should not be overlooked or disrespected.
Take anger, nature’s most powerful motivational tool. Right now America is witnessing an escalating public anger during this election cycle. Regardless of outcome, it is certain that some sort of change is taking place. Where that ends up is uncertain. Will the anger burn itself out by taking down everything in its path, or will it blossom into a cultural identity built upon increased empathy and cooperation? While it’s too early to tell, we need a full arsenal of emotional resources to navigate new terrain.
If you’re only looking at the bright side you’re missing most of this story. Blindness isn’t civility; ignoring the process while blaming ‘them’ is not a good use of emotion. This is a time for creative solutions, which, as the article above suggests, relies on resilience.
In essence, creativity is down to how easily your mind is diverted from one thought path and onto another. In a situation requiring fight or flight, it’s easy to see how turning into a literal “mad genius” could be life-saving.
Negative moods force us to confront challenging situations with novel ideas. To be clear, allowing anger or grumpiness to linger comes with its own problems. But the push for constant happiness is not reflected in any form of reality, social or physiological. It honors no animal found in nature.
Our complex diversity of emotions is a strength, not a sign of inadequacy. Learning how to navigate inner territory in a way that honors our range of feelings and responses makes us confident, and, hopefully, better citizens. When we carry our own weight it's easier to reach out and help others along, scowling or no.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.