There’s Something About Mary
Who doesn’t love Mary Poppins? Walt Disney’s most successful film won 13 Academy Awards and Julie Andrews was perfect in every way. Her infectious smile oozed empathy, she was gentle, kind, magical and loving, with a voice so sweet it could melt anyone’s heart.
Mary was the queen of positivity, famous for sayings like, “You can’t lose what you never lost,” and my personal favourite, “Everything is possible, even the impossible.”
But did Mary’s positivity actually make people happy? Can you actually teach someone to be happy? And, why are some people outwardly more happy than others? Introducing the term ‘positive psychology’, the study of factors and processes that lead to positive emotions, virtuous behaviours and optimal performance. By being positive you’re giving yourself the tools to lead a happier and healthier life. There is a lot of research showing that positivity is linked to lower stress levels, better immunity, higher emotional well-being and even longer life expectancy. By adopting positive feelings such as hope, joy and even inspiration you’re building good foundations for a healthy mental state and optimal subjective well-being.
If positivity leads to happiness then it becomes desirable and easy to sell. It’s no secret that happy people have better personal relationships, are more attractive to others, cope better with setbacks, are more resilient and make better decisions overall. Try smiling at a stranger, colleague or someone you don’t see that often and see what happens next. Chances are the person you smiled at reacted to you in a more positive way, making you feel happy.
But there is also a negative side. If someone is generally depressed, telling them to think positively and have happy thoughts can be ineffective because it is difficult for them to do so – it’s not really addressing the underlying issue.
In fact, people who are severely depressed have all sorts of cognitive distortions that make them feel and behave the way they do. One such distortion is what’s known as ‘disqualifying the positive’, where the person subconsciously transforms the positive experience into a negative one. For example, if someone says, “You look nice today,” and you automatically tell yourself, “They’re just saying that to be nice,” you are disqualifying the positive and turning it into a negative. It’s a destructive way of thinking but difficult to break without proper help.
There is also an unexpected flip side to the positivity push that is quite harmful: ‘toxic positivity’. This term comes fresh from the social media sites and has landed heavily in the laps of the self-help gurus. In a nutshell, by encouraging people to just see the bright side of life – to only be positive and happy – we are doing more harm than good and are in essence being ‘toxic’.
Believing that all you need to do is send out the right positive thoughts to the universe and the universe will answer your prayers is an example of toxic positivity. By saying to someone who is struggling to get into University, “If you really want it bad enough you’ll find a way,” you’re also guilty of toxic positivity. Saying things like, “Don’t worry, you’ll get through it,” or, “Think happy thoughts,” doesn’t help either – it actually makes things worse. Such toxic positivity crushes the validation people deserve, leaving them feeling guilty. It makes them believe they are not strong enough to get better by themselves.
If you’re having a hard time and feeling down, stop hitting the situation so hard with the positivity stick. A little bit is okay, but if you feel your case is more severe, whacking it like it’s a piñata won’t help. Instead, ask yourself, “What would Mary Poppins do?” She always seems to have the answer.
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