It has been said we live in a world of instant gratification. More this, faster that. Unfortunately, positive psychology has not escaped this trend, even when it references traditional wisdom.
We are encouraged – often by memes – to think positively, change our perceptions and shrug off other people’s opinions.
While the sentiments behind these memes have genuine merit; the problem lies with the use of absolutes (never, always, everything, nothing) and oversimplification of the human experience.
If you have no expectations, never take anything personally, appreciate everything, see every event with a positive mindset and discard all experiences that are anything less than ideal, then…well, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but you are probably a robot.
Humans are multi-dimensional, complex beings. While we all experience the world differently, pain, shame and the need for connection and validation are universal. These experiences may differ by degrees, but still they affect everyone. And so, the things that separate us are also the things that bind us. Once we understand this, we see that being immune to others’ opinions and behaviours means we have not truly connected in the first place.
Similarly, critical thinking and feeling can be useful in helping us to identify our needs, values and expectations. In other words, we know where the light is because of the shadows. If this is true, why are we so keen to create a world of eternal sunshine?
I believe it is because we want to absolve ourselves from doing the work; which is where inspiration becomes instant gratification. People will naturally gravitate towards the easier path, however knowing thyself means getting thy hands dirty. This may include grief, confusion, anger and sorrow; especially at first. It may also mean meeting the internal struggle with kindness and acceptance. This form of perspective-changing takes time and is based on accepting the reality, rather than rushing to fix or avoid it. Essentially, to do the work involves sifting through the wreckage (most especially when you don’t believe you have any), understanding it where possible and putting it back together again in a more meaningful way. And who wants to do such a raw, arduous task?
Those who seek transformation of some kind, that’s who.
Positive psychology differs from clinical psychology in several ways, though I will mention only two here. First, it embraces the whole spectrum of human emotion and recognises that effective and ineffective thought processes lie along a continuum of human functioning. Second, it aims to reach further than traditional models, by looking beyond stabilisation towards growth.
By oversimplifying the human experience down to eternal sunshine and happiness, we are not teaching others what it actually takes to achieve this growth. Perhaps, by promoting the unattainable, we are even setting them up to fail.
In his new book Hope Without Optimism, Terry Eagleton ponders the effect of optimism at the expense of all else:
Like pessimism, optimism spreads a monochrome glaze over the whole world, blind to nuance and distinction. Since it is a general mind-set, all objects become blandly interchangeable, in a kind of exchange value of the spirit. The card-carrying optimist responds to everything in the same rigorously preprogrammed way, and so eliminates chance and contingency.
This ‘blindness’ makes it all too easy to invalidate both our day-to-day struggles and the raw pain of disconnection, loss and shame. Perspective-taking is worthwhile, but it can’t be done (or done well) without first acknowledging the original source of discomfort and its implications.
When we are willing to validate and embrace the range of human experiences, needs, thoughts and emotions, we are better equipped to attempt all the things the above memes suggest: practice gratitude and healthy detachment, be less reactive, see the world for its possibilities and let go of the things which threaten to hold us back.
With all of this in mind, I have created my own series of memes. I have drawn on my original photographs and ideas as well as favourite quotes from other creative thinkers.
This series is intended to validate the whole, unpolished self so that – while it seems like a contradiction in terms -both acceptance and transformation are possible outcomes. To me, these also speak to our need for connection, empathy and awareness. In doing so, they acknowledge that there is no quick-fix to a fulfilling life.
All photographs by Melita Caulfield.