What is the Role of Positive Psychology?
Can there be too much positivity?
It’s possible. Positive psychology is a useful tool and application to treat minor ailments and as a form of mental health maintenance and optimiser. However, we cannot dismiss the importance of the less desired emotions as they are eager to tell a story too.
“There can be too much positivity in positive psychology”, remarked a psychology coursemate.
We were taken aback by that remark in one of the in-class discussions about addressing psychological issues with different approaches. That discussion happened a few years ago when I was doing my foundation year studies in psychology. I gave it a lot of thought after that class activity. I wasn’t sure where I stood about positive psychology at that time; I was more inclined towards the positive psychology applications. Well, it’s “positive”, so it must be good, right? So I assumed.
Where I stand today
Fast-forward to the recent encounter during the short virtual courses that I attended during the lull period of COVID-19. A couple of the classes that I attended left me with strong feelings and bemoaning thoughts. The trainers were enthusiastic in imparting positive psychology techniques on a large scale to a broad spectrum of audiences. In one particular advice, the trainer gave his opinion freely that people should only choose to record positive emotions and disregard the negative emotions. The information left me in dismay.
Image: One of my favourite illustrators and authors who draws and writes on the principles of positive psychology. I own these books.
Omission & Replacement, Addition, Balance
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the idea of positive psychology. If anything, I am supportive of it. Not only that I have quite some collection of self-help books that leveraged on the principles of positive psychology, but I also write in the tone of positivity for websites.
Omission and Replacement
“Our house rule is that we don’t use negative words at home, we only use positive words”
A friend once sternly corrected me when I said that I told my sister not to be late for our lunch date. She said that I should say, “Be punctual” instead of “Don’t be late”. She also shared that in her household, she forbade her family from using bad words. If the kids had negative feelings, they were not allowed to express the emotions as they were; instead, they would replace them with a positive expression. For example, if the kids were feeling sad, they would say “I was happier yesterday” or “I wish I were as happy as yesterday”.
While I am supportive of the idea of cultivating civility, good manners, and politeness, it is noteworthy that I meant to warn my sister. She practised habitual lateness in her younger days. Omission and replacement is a common technique taught in positive psychology, but we should aim to teach people to understand the underpinning concepts rather than just blindly applying the methods. There are times for civility, and there are times for assertiveness. The latter doesn’t automatically qualify as a negative tag; similarly, the former doesn’t mean positive. More crucially, a replacement is not always telling the full story or demonstrating the full repercussion of the original context. “I was happier yesterday,” says nothing about how sad, angry, frustrated or anything other than happy that the child was feeling. It only reinforces her happy feelings for yesterday.
For example, “Be nice” may sound encouraging to promote civil behaviours in a group activity. Still, it may be too sweet if our objective were to halt violence in a potentially dangerous situation. When we warn with assertiveness, we are respecting our emotions as well as the other person’s need for caution for a possible consequence. Therefore, we should not default our behaviour to a specific setting. Instead, we learn to assess the situations and apply a more suitable corresponding response to yield a more desired outcome. The excessive omission can feel like a form of suppression and rejection of the other emotions that make us humans.
What would I do?
In the example of my friend hoping to teach her kids only to have positive emotions, I would recommend a more productive multi-layered process. Allow the kids to express their feelings freely, and it’s essential to recognise that this process is pivotal to their future mental wellbeing development. If they are experiencing a negative emotion, take the time to sit down with them and do the fact-finding process in determining the cause of the feeling. It may be an isolated incident that causes that emotion; it may be a cumulative chain of events. Fact-establishing step helps them learn to apply this solution-focused technique in managing future problems. Now, after understanding the stemming cause, we must first help them recognise the associating moods to that emotion. Ask them if they liked what they were feeling. Ideally, they would say they don’t like how they feel about a negative emotion; be it anger, frustration, being aggrieved, sad etc. However, if they surprised you that they wanted to be angry, it’s also another telling sign that you need to address. Always find out why they like or dislike a particular emotion – this helps them understand their feelings, then contribute to mitigating the less desired effects.
When is Omission-Only Suitable as a Single Tool?
There is an exception to when we could use the omission-only technique on its own, as a short-term solution. One of those times would be when a person is already on the verge of falling apart – crisis mode. When a person is one hairline away from being irrevocably broken down, even a tiny shred of negativity would be too much to bear. Crisis period is when we could go undiluted with excluding any negative emotion for a while; just long enough to lift the person’s functionality to above the baseline level of coping. Then, we slowly reintroduce a balancing tool to mitigate negative emotions.
Another classic technique is creating positive, encouraging phrases to uplift your self-image. For example, we see people saying to themselves in the mirror, “You are handsome”, “You are gorgeous”, “You are a confident and competent employee!”. We also see people repeating those phrases to encourage others who may need a boost in self-confidence. Are they bad? No, and yes. A little nudging helps remind us of the direction to reach an anchored goal. Indulgence, however, hampers real progress as an inflated false ego can only get us to short distances; we may use that as an excuse not to put in any real effort to gain a meaningful result. For example, if you kept telling kids who fare quite poorly at school that they did an exceedingly great job, why would they need to find other ways to improve themselves if they already did a great job? Perhaps what we could do is acknowledge that they had worked hard, but maybe we could explore other ways to see if new methods could help them better achieve their goals.
Every emotion has its place and meaning. The real work is not in implementing drastic changes to replace an existing problem. The effort lies in maintaining a balance of the functioning environment of our minds to operate optimally without excessive suppression. If we continued to dismiss unpleasant emotions without acknowledging the cause and reason, we could be doing more harm than good to our mental wellbeing.
We need to recognise that positive psychology can be an excellent emotion optimiser and stabiliser. In my previous article, “How to create happy positive emotions by easy self-help and mindfulness“, I make several recommendations on how to trick our minds to create happy emotions. I also illuminate the difference between a “bandaid” quick-fix for minor and passing symptoms of depressive moods and a thorough assessment of a persistent condition relating to clinical and manic depression.
In the same tone, in the article, “With whom can I share my deepest secrets“, that I wrote for CARA Unmask, a mental health platform that promotes peer support for emotional management, I outline the importance of identifying and keeping records of both the positive and less desired moods.
Problematic Quick Fix for Big Crowd
I have never been a fan of issuing a general quick fix which seems too magical to be true, to a large crowd that possibly faces a myriad of different problems in varying severity. We must take careful steps in addressing big and small concerns without prejudice, but we cannot think that we can hand out the same painkiller to treat all kinds of conditions. Without first establishing an adequate understanding of the problems of an individual, we would be irresponsible to advise a behaviour-altering action that can impede yielding a positive outcome.