The Positivity Pushers

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In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.

 

I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.