As I approach the end of my first year of study of Positive Psychology I am compelled to share a common idea that surfaces when considering the subject of happiness.
Happiness isn’t a blind, naïve, ignorant or one-sided perspective. It isn’t about refusing to see problems, downsides, challenges or tough times and metaphorically sticking our fingers in our ears. I am certain that every system on the planet, and beyond, that is left to its own devices will always always, always move towards homeostasis, or balance. This goes for an economic system as much as for the incredible system of, and systems within, the human body. What we may perceive to be a negative event, circumstance or situation, is almost certainly just a natural drive back towards that ‘sweet spot’ of balance and harmony. A powerful force that we can work with rather than against.
For example, when we experience ‘dis-ease’, the body shuts down all but the most critical functions to deal with the intruder and restore homeostasis. Upon recovery, it is common to find new appreciation for what was taken for granted and move forward with a stronger, more knowledgeable immune system, predisposed to act if the intruder returns. Illness is not a negative event and often leaves us more resilient, informed and appreciative of health. It may be tempting to attempt to quieten the symptoms and just get on with our day, but is this inhibiting the natural order? Every organism seeks to preserve inner harmony and progress. The same is true of emotions. They are neither good nor bad. They are simply offering feedback about the status quo, if we choose to listen.
Angry? We perceive some kind of injustice and this anger could serve to catalyse progression. Depressed? We are not wholly content with our current situation and are ready for change. Anxious? Perhaps we experience a gap in our skill set and are shining a light on an area we are now ready to grow.
Who can’t look back on something which we, at one time, perceived to be a negative event and later saw it as the start of something wonderful?
Nothing is good or bad, until we assign it that quality. And much of that decision making, I believe, is habitual and unconscious. It can be changed. When our reactions to events can be viewed simply as a natural drive towards balance, suddenly we are empowered to allow emotions to exist, and formulate our response accordingly. The realisation of this personal power and choice is game changing.
It is my belief that, contrary to what many people believe ‘positive thinking’ is about, when we fail to accept this natural tendency towards balance, such as repressing negative emotions or apologising for feeling sad/negative/down etc, we may become active participants in our own dysfunction, holding ourselves back in every way. I question whether it is a coincidence that the bestselling book on positive thinking (The Power of Positive Thinking) was published the same year as the first anti-depressant was prescribed. Peale suggested those with a predisposition towards negative emotions could become ‘positive thinkers’ overnight and missed the crucial intermediary steps of embracing negative emotions, reappraising them and consciously turning challenge into opportunity. This emotional alchemy is vital to resilience and well-being.
Positive Psychology, for me, has only served to reinforce the importance of seemingly negative emotions, events, situations and experiences because without them we rob ourselves of the chance to know what we are truly capable of. Wouldn’t you like to find out?