As a self-proclaimed realist, few things are more irritating to me than when people tell me to “just be positive.” It’s not that I don’t want to be happy, but “just being positive,” to me looks like ignoring the pain and unpredictability of life. Since I consider myself to be a rigidly scientific and realistic person, I am obstinately opposed, no matter the cost, to fooling my mind into believing anything but the truth. This is not to say that I could necessarily force positivity upon myself. I have struggled with depression for much of my life. Even when I am not depressed, years of depressive thought patterns have cut well-worn paths in my mind like a fast-moving river. However, my realist view of the world has, heretofore, prevented me from even attempting to pull myself out of the riverbed and forge new, more positive, trails. I came to the realization, recently, however, that perhaps the reality I’ve believed in all these years is not truly reality.
I got this app called Happify last week. In fact, not only did I download the free version, but I paid $12.99 for a month of premium happification. I downloaded the app mostly out of curiosity and also to mock its efforts to force me to be happy. I suppose there was a little part of me that was hoping it might help me find happiness though. I expected to play some games and do some activities and then disdainfully dismiss the app as stupid and ineffectual. I began by playing a game that involved floating hot air balloons displaying different “positive” or “negative” words. I was supposed to tap on the balloons that have positive words and ignore the ones presenting negative words. Examples of positive words: joy, woohoo, elation, trustworthy, beautiful, peppy, rosy. Examples of negative words: anger, loneliness, mold, bacteria, self-destruction.
My first response to the game was indignation: why is “rosy” inherently positive, while “mold” and “bacteria” are negative words? Many cheeses have mold, and cheese is good. Further, your body would have some grave problems without all the good bacteria in it. So there! Look who beat the Happify App by turning Happify’s negative words into positive words! (Besides being a realist, I may also be a wee bit competitive.) My next response was, “Brainwashing! They’re brainwashing me!! They’re trying to force me to be happy by making me read all these happy words. How dare them!” I started to write about how Happify is out to brainwash people. In the process though, I began to wonder if, perhaps, I actually do put too much emphasis on the negative. Maybe the glass is neither half full nor half empty, but in fact, mostly full, and I’ve just been magnifying that empty space.
I decided to take a more scientific look at my life by listing all the good and bad things I could think of. If I could show that there are at least as many bad things as good things, then I could justify feeling apathetic about life. When I sat down to look at my life though, I easily listed more than 65 good things in my life in only five minutes. That was without listing individual foods like chocolate, ice cream, fried things, bread, etc. Neither did my list include most seldom-acknowledged good things like clean water, electricity, toilets, the wheel, and Wi-Fi (remember dial-up? we can all be glad someone figured out a better way to do internet). The things I listed are really good things, many of which are specific to my life.
I moved on to writing my bad things list. The immediate observation I made was that I was struggling to come up with negative things. Next, I noticed that while my good things were primarily real, concrete things, my bad things list contained mostly things that might happen. The topic that evidently occupies much of my mental energy is that tragedy could strike at any moment: my partner could leave me, my family could get sick, the people I love could die. But these fears are not reality. It is true that tragedy can strike. Horrible things do happen. When they do, we suffer, and the number of good things in our lives doesn’t really matter. How often have I been deeply affected by terrible events though? If you rule out the “tragedies” that later turned out to be good things (e.g. breakups that were painful, but needed to happen), this leaves astonishingly few very painful events in my 31 years of life. And the thing about tragedies is that we get through them. We survive devastation and defeat, and we go on living our lives, and we can still be happy. In fact, research shows that people who have come through adversity may actually be happier than those who have never experienced it!
So now I have “scientific” evidence that I put more weight on unfounded fears than I do on the reality that is my life, which is actually filled with good things. Apparently, I am not the only one who does this. It seems that humans have a “negativity bias.” This is probably because any ancestors who stood around admiring the shiny, sharp teeth on the saber-toothed tiger never made it long enough to procreate. On the other hand, those who assumed the saber-toothed tiger was a threat right off the bat and hightailed it out of there survived to have lots of cautious, pessimistic babies. However, most of us are no longer running from predators, so the negativity bias can get in the way of enjoying life when we interpret anything unknown (like the future) as a substantive threat.
Although the negativity bias is prevalent in our species, the revelation that I have been lying to myself all these years was actually a bit upsetting, as it would be to any scientist or truth-seeker. Here I thought I was being such a realist when, all along, I’ve actually been confusing reality with my imaginary fears. Of course, there are some things that I’m grumpy about that are real, but the majority of my life is really good. It’s not that I believe I should ignore the bad stuff, but if 95% of my life is really good, and 5% is bad, I probably don’t need to be spending 95% of my time concentrating on the bad stuff.
I should add a side note here: Some people are born with the skills and the genetics to be happy. Some of us have to develop those skills and try to defy our genetics. Having a tendency towards depression makes it extra hard and even impossible to change the way one thinks about life, no matter how long the good things list is. Therefore, I am not saying that everyone should be happy or that anyone should be happy all the time. I’m not even sure it’s possible for me to be happy after so many years of conditioning my brain to view life as punishment. Which brings me back to Happify.
The realization that life is actually mostly pretty good was important for me, not because it means I all of a sudden feel like life is this incredible gift that I now relish, but because it gives me a reason to try to change the way I think. I can no longer view positive thinking as brainwashing. Instead, I can see it as re-training my brain to be realistic. I can view it as teaching my mind to not focus on my anxieties and fears of things that may or may not happen, but on everything I have in this present moment. Happify can’t force happiness on me just by showing me positive words on hot air balloons, but if it can help me focus more on how full my glass is with good things, it was well worth the $12.99.