The challenge of positivity

5 08 2014


I admit that seeing the ‘Positivity Challenge’ circulate among my Facebook friends came as something of a relief. I do have a few friends who seem to use Facebook as a means of broadcasting all of the things that go wrong in their day. I know they probably don’t intend to complain, and probably the support and sympathy expressed by friends is a ray of light in a difficult situation. But sometimes reading my newsfeed feels like having people near and far shout their complaints at me. This phenomenon could be the reason for the genesis of the challenge to make three positive statements for seven days running.

Recently, one of my lovely friends completed the challenge and nominated me to give it a go. However, in typical Sarah Dunlop style, I began to over think it. I’m not sure Facebook is the best medium of reflection for those given to introspection – it takes me nearly 24 hours after something has happened to parcel it into a few words to put in my status line.

I do believe that positive thinking is very powerful; I have experienced this myself. I confess that I am someone whose first reaction is at times to be critical. So, an exercise in being effusively positive seemed like a really good idea.

But then something started to niggle at me. Here’s the sticking point: on Facebook I have the illusion of staying in touch with many friends from different parts of my life with very little effort on my part. But, sometimes I have discovered through other channels that although someone may have been posting happy thoughts for weeks on end, it turns out that some really difficult and horrible things have been going on in their private lives, things that never made it into their status updates. Now, of course I’ll be the first to say that Facebook may not be a safe place for telling everyone about highly personal, heartbreaking situations. But still, I have felt that my friends’ public positivity now distances me from them, because I realise that I don’t know what is really going on in their lives.

Now, some people may be thinking that it is pointless to be so concerned about partial positivity on Facebook, because it is just a bit of fun. But I disagree. I believe it is the way that we are defining our lives to the many people who are our ‘Facebook friends’ and it is also a means for defining our lives to ourselves.

Based on their studies of young people in Britain, Savage, Collins-Mayo and Mayo hypothesized that people promote a ‘happiness midi-narrative’, which is a worldview characterised by believing that everyone’s goal should be happiness, everyone has a right to happiness, and everyone wants to be around happy people. I encountered this in my own research in Ukraine, when I met a young woman who kept a ‘happiness journal’ in which she recorded not what actually happened to her in the day, but all the happy things that she wished had happened.

What is frightening is that people with this worldview believe that their friends don’t want to hear about their personal disappointments and hardships, and so instead promote a false positivity. The problem, of course, is that often life isn’t happy, and a depression goes un-noticed or a difficult situation is dealt with alone because it is hidden behind a façade of happiness.

It’s hot, I’m 14 years-old, sitting in the backseat of my parents car between my two brothers, one of whom is asleep and leaning his sweaty head on my shoulder. I can’t read my novel because I’ll get carsick and the ten-hour journey to my grandparents’ house is dragging. I’m being very grumpy and sarcastic, and my mother turns to me from the front seat and says, “You know Sarah, you can choose whether to be happy right now.”

Those words echo in my mind today – sometimes I can focus so much on what is going wrong or what I don’t have, that I forget what I do have. And so, by focusing on the positive, I can find a level of joy in the present.

Perhaps what matters is how I deal with heartbreak and personal failures and disappointments. Although these do not make me happy, with God’s help I can find a means of walking the path of my life. And I do believe that God is at work in the world and through his eyes I can find points of light in the darkness. And those points of joy may be like tiny twinkles in the night sky or like the dazzling sun on a hot day. But either way, it should be celebrated.

So, I will do the positivity challenge.




One response

7 08 2014
Tanya Marlow

Love this thoughtful consideration of the whole thing. I also feel that tension with the positivity thing.

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