Pathological Positivity

I feel sad.  I feel sad with very good justification.  Events are happening in my life, at present (and in the world in general), to which the most rational and appropriate response is to feel sadness.  I think that the emotion of sadness wouldn’t have still been with us, as a species, if it didn’t serve some very useful evolutionary process.  Otherwise, it would have been selected out, millennia ago.  We feel sadness because it is important to do so.  While not exactly a pleasant feeling, it also leads you to contemplation and quiet behaviours, which I conclude, are part of self-preservation and survival.

Expressing sadness is supposed to connect us to other empathetic people, when we need their emotional support the most.  It’s supposed to signal a need for others to care about you a little more than usual.  It’s not supposed to be something that makes you feel guilty or ashamed, for the sin of feeling sadness publicly.  It should not make you an untouchable pariah, or the target for unwanted help with feeling cheerful.  False cheer is not the right thing, in this circumstance.  Some reverence and respect is.

Feeling sad is, I think, a way of helping you get through sad things without falling to pieces, psychologically, in a massive, sudden unleashing of the tidal wave of grief that builds, as if in a pressure cooker, inside ourselves.  If we didn’t have sadness, I think we’d explode, when confronted with the inevitable saddening things we all encounter, at some time or other, in our lives; if not immediately, then certainly eventually.

So why does everybody want to nail your relief safety valve shut?  Why do people think they’re doing you a huge favour to try to kid you out of your sadness, as if you were some kind of imbecile, incapable of responding with the appropriate bubbly cheer, in the face of things that are really, really sad?  What’s with the forced smiles and tortured bonhomie?  Why is it thought to be an offence to society to express a natural emotion?  Why can’t I be sad?

I came across this article, recently:

It reported on research that found that extremely positive people think they’re more able to empathise than they really are.  In other words, they see themselves, because of their extreme positivity, as caring, sharing, sympathetic and empathetic human beings that everybody should be pleased to know.  How they are actually perceived, by those on the receiving end of their extreme positivity, is as hard-hearted, cold, insouciant, self-involved, arrogant, sanctimonious, judgemental air heads who heap insult, injury and emotional harm on those that are at their most emotionally vulnerable.  Rather than being a source of comfort and support, they are perceived as a destructive, uncaring force, happy enough to stamp all over the feelings and hurts of other people.

Pathologically positive people, it seems, are less able to feel the emotions of others (both positive and negative) than those that reported themselves as being less than bubbly.  This is not surprising, when you come to think about it.  If your repertoire of emotional responses habitually excludes anything that isn’t bubbly positivity, then you aren’t going to recognise and respond to the wider gamut of emotions, displayed by others, outside of your limited range of self-permitted feelings.

Sadness is not the same as negativity.  People often mistake those two things for each other, but they’re different.  The latter is relentlessly seeing everything in the worst possible light and as such, is a distortion of reality.  Sadness, on the other hand, is responding to sad things with the appropriate emotion.  Fake positivity, in the face of saddening events, is bizarre.  It’s unhealthy.  I think it’s actually twisted and pathological.  It’s pathological positivity.

Encountering pathological positivity can feel isolating and frustrating, when you feel sad for good reason, but all around you seemingly want to stay uninvolved, don’t want to listen to your sadness and don’t want to comfort you.  It can feel even worse when they insist you should be feeling emotions other than sadness.  It’s not as if sadness is a contagious malady.  They should worry about that less.

Of course, if your sadness merely alerts another person to their inappropriate lack of response to sad things, then it can be contagious, but isn’t that a good thing, in this context?  Shouldn’t people that are not feeling sad, in response to sad things, be reminded that the best response is actually to feel sadness?

The alternative to pathological positivity is aware and awake positivity, grounded in reality and respectful of when it’s healthy and life-affirming to be productive and creative and when withdrawal from the melee is the right thing to do.

Aware and awake positivity is characterised by facing problems with empathy and solving them with optimism.  It doesn’t deny sadness, it embraces it, but it never loses sight of the fact that things can and most likely will get better in the future.  It’s quite uncommon for one’s life to be an endless downward spiral, though there are, of course, countless documented examples of just this unfortunate turn of events.  Aware and awake positivity is very different to “head in the sand” positivity, which is all about appearances, selfishness, superficiality and a belief that you have to be positive to get what you want.  Positivity that acknowledges, accepts and respects sadness is gentle, calming and effective.

Sympathy is also not the same as empathy.  Empathy requires that you share the negative feelings of the person you’re trying to support, at least temporarily, so that you can genuinely step into their shoes and understand their problems from the heart.  To be genuinely empathetic, you need to feel their feelings, at least for a short while.  Simply offering them chocolate just doesn’t cut it, as well-meaning as that gesture might be.  It’s too disconnected and emotionally remote to qualify as empathy.  That’s actually sympathy.  You want to comfort the person, but without feeling what they’re feeling.

Art practice requires some positivity, it’s true, or you get stuck and paralysed.  On the other hand, there are things that are more important than art and if you feel sadness, why should the demands of staying creative override thinking about the things that have made you feel sad?  Perhaps they deserve additional attention, at this moment.  Let your artistic life ride, for a while.  You weren’t put here first and foremost to be a creative robot.

The same applies to all sorts of issues, actually.  Not just art related ones.  Sometimes, sadness serves to divert your focus to something more important, that needs your immediate attention.  It’s probably a mistake to fight that inclination too fiercely.  The feeling is valid and it would be foolish to ignore or suppress it.

We can all agree that positivity is necessary for progress, but you can’t be blind to the genuine obstacles and problems, or you’ll never solve any of them.  You also can’t assume somebody else will solve them for you, or leave it to them.  They’re all waiting for you.  Skating over the problems you must face and solve, with a vapid grin plastered on your face, to hide the heartbreak and emotions below, is sheer folly.

Reversion to the vacuous is not an answer, either.  Scratch beneath the surface and most people are eating whole tubs of ice cream on their own, or nursing chocolate addictions, in an attempt to stave off the feelings of existential loneliness that trying to portray your life as unfailingly happy, positive and perfect brings on.  We’re all more vulnerable than that, our pretences and protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  We feel sadness, despair, pointlessness, failure, discouragement, defeat and hopelessness, from time to time.  We all do and we all should, I contend.  Denial doesn’t change anything.

You can express your sadness through your art.  I know I play music and compose very differently, when I feel sadness.  It’s not better or worse than my usual music, but it does convey the inner feelings to the outside world as effectively as I am able.  It also brings me comfort.  If just one person responds to that kind of music, wrought from my sadness, then so much the better.  I feel as though I have connected, emotionally, with people who are genuinely able to feel the same feelings as I am feeling, through my music.  That’s an inclusive and embracing feeling and just what you need, when you feel sad.  The sharing of that music feels like a hug.

(Humorous aside:  Who was it that said, “If my music reaches just one person, then I’m going to need to take a day job to survive”?)

We don’t need to try to change the world.  We just need to hope that those that are wrecking it will wake up in time and take a long, hard, serious look at their own behaviour.  Those that are greedy, cruel and harsh need to understand how damaging their behaviours are to everyone, including to themselves.  In fact, I assert that these negative behaviours are far more damaging, to society, than a few people feeling sadness in response to sad things.  Oddly, though, the greedy, cruel and harsh do not meet with the same sanctimonious disapproval and opprobrium that those feeling sad do.

Our economic system funnels our will into the pursuit of material prosperity and comfort, insisting we remain bright and breezy at all times, in the process.  This is the very opposite of freedom.  In fact, it’s oppressive.  It stifles creativity and forces our life energy inwards instead of outwards, turning us into what Nietzsche describes as “the sick animal”.  Despite our material prosperity, we suffer from “affluenza” and write self-help books to each other, in an attempt to diagnose and treat the panoply of mental and physical afflictions caused by our wealth and disconnectedness from our own emotions and those of others.  We should be allowed to feel.

In Nietzsche’s book, “Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None”, a work considered to be his most important, he warns humanity about the perils of the very last human being.  He described a possible future for humanity in which we are mindlessly naive, happy and healthy, but lacking in spirit, vitality and creativity.  In his words, we lack life itself.

Nietzsche would abhor the modern cult of happiness seekers, seeing the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain and suffering as being equivalent to the avoidance of life itself.  Pathological positivity would horrify him.  Embracing life necessarily means embracing the painful and the difficult elements of life, as well as the facile, enjoyable and easy parts.

Feeling sad, therefore, is feeling life itself.  There is a little comfort and reassurance in that thought.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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