Previously Published in The Socialist online www.thesocialist.us
Lately there have been a lot of people in the social justice
community putting down “positive psychology.” For example, Barbara
Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Many are accusing positive thinking of being “pop” and even “pseudo” psychology.
The claim is that positivity is not factual or scientific, is very
individualistic, and is used to eschew collective responsibility for why
people are suffering and/or are unhappy (such as systematic oppression
However, there is rigorous scientific research that validates
positive psychology as being widely effective. Not in a self-help book
sort of way, but more on measurable level through evidence-based
practice psychotherapy. Some of these therapeutic techniques include
cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness based therapy (which is
actually based on Buddhist principles and practices). These techniques
have helped many suffering with depression and anxiety to recover and
feel significant improvement. This disproves the notion that positive
psychology is a myth or is unscientific, as it has measurable positive
The problem with the naysayers, as I see it, is they tend to swing in
the opposite direction of positivity. Many are cynical, and attack
positivity in order to make an argument for apathy. The “the world sucks
and we’re all going to die anyway so why even try” types are the people
I am referring to. Those who think this way create a self-fulfilling
prophecy. They believe they cannot change anything so they give up. I
argue that it’s self-defeating.
Inherent individual temperament aside, I believe most people can
benefit from some degree of optimism; and it has been shown that most
can learn techniques to become more optimistic. But in the end no one
can force anyone to think differently. My point is not necessarily to
convince anyone to utilize positivity if it’s not their cup of tea, but
rather to say if it works for people why put it down? We choose to
utilize positive thinking, or reframe our perception to either more
positive, accurate, or non-judgmental thoughts because it works for us.
So let’s call a truce on this one and allow each other to live our lives
the in the best way we see fit without judgment.
Yes, deep structural, institutional, and systematic change is needed
so that we can alleviate suffering and exploitation on a mass and
fundamental level. And there is legitimate reasons for why people are suffering, are depressed, and/or anxious. However, I maintain there can be a synthesis of
critical thinking, critical awareness, and positive thinking which will
lead to better lives for both individuals and groups. But if we could
choose to lessen suffering in the moment, even for an individual, why
wouldn’t we do so? Last time I checked individuals make up society. They
are members of a family and a community; they are your co-workers, your
neighbors, etc. Improving the emotional lives of people will have a
wider impact on the world.
Moreover, one argument on the other side seems to be saying there
isn’t a way to make things better until “after the revolution.” I don’t
know about you, but I’m not sure I can wait! I am here to say there are
plenty of ways to make things better now! Will they completely alleviate
and ameliorate the problems? No. But can they make us feel better? Yes!
The opposition seems to think that happiness will cover up the pain and
make us less likely to take social action. But I believe when we feel
better we have the capacity to do more. Depression and anxiety are
demotivating and debilitating. If positivity can help us to have the
energy to put into educating and organizing, not to mention increase the
quality of our lives and our mental and physical health, then that in
and of itself makes it worth a try!
To me being positive is not being unrealistic or “living in the
clouds” so to speak. It is strength-based, rooted in self growth, and
about reaching ones fullest potential. Being positive is encouragement
and believing in yourself and others. Being positive is knowing your own
self-worth, value, and dignity. Being positive is keeping hope alive by
choosing to continue in a struggle and having the resiliency to bounce
back from setbacks. Being positive helps us to fight on and work
together for better days for all people. In fact, being positive is a
Being a socialist is rooted in love for oneself and one’s community.
Without this positivity we couldn’t possibly continue to sustain the
movements that breathe life into our collective futures, which require a
lot of hard work. Just believing we have a future and it will be better
than today because of our struggle, is being positive. Without
optimism, we will accept our fate, instead of resisting and agitating
until we make something better of our lives. Positivity means being
willing to demand better because we know we deserve better!
It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenging emotions or tough times. It
doesn’t mean avoiding challenging things or deny the truth about life’s
struggles. It means we choose to face them with a positive mental
attitude and know we have what it takes to problem solve our way through
it. It’s not like we pretend nothing inhumane or unjust ever happens in
the world or that positive thoughts alone can make hardships go away
and make us happy. We just believe in the power of positivity to help us
make things better. In hard times, it means we can lean on a friend,
family member, or comrade for support.
We have each other and that in and of itself is positive. Being
positive teaches us to embrace our vulnerabilities in order to make
connections with others. Instead of listening to the fear-based
narratives of the dominant culture, which makes us shut down in shame,
we choose to embrace a life which, although sometimes is uncomfortable,
is worth living. It is due in large part to the positive social
connections we make with others that improves the quality of our lives,
renews our spirits, and keeps us going.
As a socialist we realize that through all the pain and suffering,
oppression, dehumanization, and exploitation the world has in store for
us, we have so much joy, peace, egalitarianism, and mutual aid to share.
In the process of our lives we practice in action what we believe in in
theory, breathing life into praxis. It’s through positivity that
socialists exist. Because we work together towards our collective
liberation every day steadfast in the belief that we make a difference
and our lives matter.
So instead of rejecting positivity, let’s embrace what it can do for
us! Sure, it can’t do everything, but where it has its usefulness let’s
use it. Let positivity not be a reason to become complacent or be
content in our own little bubble, but let it be a reason for us to
become more pro-active, engaged, and inspired to keep moving forward
together in our quest for collective human liberation on both individual
and societal levels.