The tyranny of positivity: A Harvard psychologist details our unhealthy obsession with happiness
Think happy, be happy? Maybe not. Harvard psychologist Susan David examines the backlash effect of forced positivity in our lives.
Susan David, Ph.D., is a Psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School; co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital; and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. An in-demand speaker and advisor, David has worked with the senior leadership of hundreds of major organizations, including the United Nations, Ernst & Young, and the World Economic Forum. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Harvard Business Review, Time, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal. David is on the core faculty of the extraordinary global program Homeward Bound which culminates in an all-women expedition to Antarctica and is being filmed as a documentary. The program aims at increasing the influence and impact of women in the sciences. Originally from South Africa, David lives outside of Boston with her family.
Susan David: I do have concerns about the over arching societal messaging that we are hearing, which is that we should focus on being happier; that we should choose to be happy and that we should think positive. Now just to be clear I am not anti-happiness. I, in a past life, wrote and 80 chapter give or take doorstopper book called The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, which really explored how it is that human beings can develop higher levels of happiness. But what I am concerned about in the current discourse is that I think what it is actually paradoxically doing is setting people up for greater levels of unhappiness. Let me explain why.
A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with and died of stage-4 breast cancer and she described her experience of suffering and loss as being exacerbated by what she termed "the tyranny of positivity." That she had so many people coming to her and saying just be positive; just think positive; everything will be fine. And what she said is those messages that a real impact on her ability to be authentically and in a real way with her experience. She also said that it made her fairly angry, that if it was just a case of thinking positive and being positive that all of the individuals in her breast cancer support group would be alive today. They were the most positive people that she had met, but they were not alive and that somehow the messaging that our wellness is 100 percent in our control simply by thinking positive can often lead to people who are suffering from illnesses like cancer to feel that they are somehow to blame for their own illness or for their coming death because they weren't positive enough.
I very much experienced this in my own life when I was growing up. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 16 years old and what I noticed on a really large scale interaction when it came to peers and adults was people both saying to my father that he just needed to believe that he would survive and to us as a family that we just needed to be positive. And I truly believe that this impacted on our ability to actually connect with and in a real way be with each other during our precious time. Because rather than being able to be present and make space for the reality, we were pegging our hopes on some future cure.
Difficult experiences are a part of life. They are part of life's contract with the world. They're part of our contract with the world simply by virtue of being here. Life's beauty is inseparable from its fragility. You are healthy until you are not. You are with the people that you love until you are not. You have a job that you love until for some reason that job no longer works out. It is really important that as human beings we develop our capacity to deal with our thoughts and emotions in a way that isn't a struggle, in a way that embraces them and is with them and is able to learn from them. What I worry about when there is this message of be happy is that people then automatically assume that when they have a difficult thought or feeling that they should push it aside, that it's somehow a sign of weakness. And what that does is it actually stops people from being authentic with themselves. It hinders our ability to learn from our experience. And I believe that it is stopping us as a society, including our children, from developing higher levels of well being and resilience.
A better way to focus on happiness is for us not to be focused on the goal of happiness per se, but rather what it is that we value, what it is that is important to us intrinsically and how every day we can make moves towards that thing without the over arching expectation being that we will somehow be happier. What happens when we focus intrinsically on what is important to us, happiness becomes an outstanding byproduct of that focus.
Some days it can feel like we’re living inside an overly sincere Hallmark card. The dominant messaging in western societies is: Be happy. Don’t worry. It will be alright. Just reach for happiness. Take your destiny into your own hands. The people close to you, to whom you can tell your worries, they smile and a speech bubble floats from their mouth saying: ‘Think positive!’ Somewhere, a Disney bird is chirping.
Harvard psychologist Susan David doesn’t trust this messaging, and worries how it is shaping us and our children. She first experienced the detriment of forced positivity when she was 16 years old and her father was diagnosed with cancer. Friends and relatives came to console the family, and the large-scale sentiment was that if the family just believed, he would be okay. In hindsight, David sees how damaging this was as it impacted on her family’s ability to be present, to spend authentic time together and embrace reality, as they were distracted by their hope for a cure on the horizon instead.
David experienced it a second tragic time through a friend of hers who was recently diagnosed with and died of stage-four breast cancer. This friend described her own experience of suffering with cancer as amplified by what she called ‘the tyranny of positivity’. This woman had been to support group meetings, and she knew first-hand that positive thinking did not save the women who did not return to group each week.
Happiness has become an expectation, but David notes that we can't forget that there is no one state of being that a person is entitled to, as she puts it: life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. Humans must develop the skills and capacity to deal with difficult times, not sweep it aside as a glitch in the smooth delivery of constant happiness. Sadness, heartbreak, and grief aren’t signs of weakness, and pretending these "uglier" emotions don’t exist only hinders our authentic existence and experience of life. It lowers our resilience to future difficulties as well.
Happiness is not the goal, she says. If you build your life around things that you intrinsically value, happiness will be a beautiful byproduct of that focus.
Susan David's most recent book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Bonus pack is available here.
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.