The Downside of Up – It may not always be good to “smile tho’ your heart is aching”

Smile tho’ your heart is aching,
Smile even tho’ it’s breaking,
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by,

If you smile
thro’ your fear and sorrow,
Smile and maybe tomorrow,
You’ll see the sun come shin-ing thro’ for you…

(Music by Charles “Charlie” Chaplin — Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons)

“Smile though your heart is aching” is a lovely song.  But smiling may not be the best.  There is an downside to up, as well as an upside to down.  Happiness may make people worse off in some ways, pessimism can have it’s pluses, negative thinking can be positive and positive thinking can be negative.  Even sadness and apathy marking a state of depression can be beneficial.

I already wrote about studies that show the happiest places on earth having the highest suicide rates.  Countries including Denmark and Sweden, often ranked high on measures of happiness and life satisfaction, have relatively high suicide rates.  Perhaps, researchers speculate, this is because being around happy people make an unhappy person feel worse.  The point is, being surrounded by happy people or trying to force yourself to be happy won’t prevent suicide.  Suicide is serious and much more pervasive than we like to acknowledge.

Positivity, happiness, optimism and the like have benefits – maybe.  All the studies done on the links between health, wealth, longevity and positive thinking/optimism do not tell us which causes which.  Maybe being healthier makes you more positive instead of being positivity increasing health.

People who strive for happiness may end up worse off than when they started.  There are too many self help/motivational books to count that encourage us to  strive for happiness, give us tools to find happiness, and tell us our life will be infinitely better when we reach our goal.  The tools provided might be helpful but the goal to be happy is not.  For instance, learning to be more mindful of the good things in life can be beneficial.  But when there’s an expectation that happiness will result from these endeavors, you may just end up disappointed.  When people don’t end up as happy as they’d expected, their feeling of failure can make them feel even worse.

Happiness may have other down sides.  A study of children followed from the 1920’s to old age found that those who died younger were rated as highly cheerful.   Then there are the studies that show people who feel extreme amounts of happiness  may not think as creatively and may take more risks like driving to fast, substance abuse, and other detrimental behaviours.  Additionally, those who are extremely happy may not be as successful as others financially and educationally.

Being too happy prohibits us to feel the appropriate emotions.  Our society promotes happiness above all else.  We don’t approve of other emotions like sadness, fear, or anger.   Those are emotions to be dealt with in private.  We are told to “put on a happy face” and “smile though our heart is aching”  but this means we do not allow ourselves to express how we really feel.  Carl Rogers might say that smiling in the face of our true emotions simply masks who we really are.  Removing these masks will allow us to live more fully.  Negative emotions are just as important as positive emotions and should not be ignored or hidden.

Being positive can “keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity,” according to Martin Seligman who established the field of positive psychology.  If your sunny outlook is through rose coloured glasses, you can’t see the whole truth and therefore may not be prepared for what’s next.

Those who fret over upcoming stressors like big tests or job interviews may overestimate their likelihood of failure.  But it’s this pessimism that allows them to be better prepared.  Furthermore, these individuals may may use their low expectations to cope with their anxiety so that it does not become debilitating. And these low expectations may help them negotiate risky situations.  When forced to “cheer up” pessimists perform worse on tasks.

Pessimists may even be less prone to depression than optimists when faced with a negative life event like the death of a friend.  Perhaps because pessimists had spent more time bracing themselves mentally for the future difficult possibilities. (see Isaacowitz,Derek M, with M.E.P. Seligman. “Is Pessimistic Explanatory Style a Risk Factor for Depressive Mood among Community-Dwelling Older Adults?.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 39. (2001): 255-272.)

Contrary to popular beliefs, positivity can be negative for those with low-self esteem.  Asking those with low-self esteem to repeat phrases over and over like “I am good enough” or “I am smart enough” or “I am a beautiful person inside and out” leave them worse off.  These statements may only remind them of how often they have fallen short of their life goals.

Being optimistic may also not be all it’s cracked up to be.  Optimism may be irrational.  Most people are more optimistic than realistic – believing (perhaps like teenagers who think they’re invincible) that they won’t be like their peers and face hardships like being diagnosed with cancer or getting a divorce and that things will be better for them – they’ll live longer and their children will be more gifted and talented.  Optimism is resilient and persists throughout our life but it can lead to disastrous miscalculations.  Optimism can hinder our ability to focus on how we can avoid defeat or heartache thus proving ineffective as a protective mechanism to learn from our experiences.

Another study finds that visualizing success may be counterproductive.  By imagining that we’ve achieved a goal, our brains stop trying.  Instead of working harder to reach our goals, by visualizing success we trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we actually reach the goal.  In other words, our brains start to get comfy and slack off.  In the study, participants told to visualize attaining goals throughout the course of a week ended up attaining fewer goals than their peers and were found to be less energetic.  Instead, the researchers suggest we shouldn’t visualize success, we should visualize the obstacles before us and the setbacks we might face to prepare us for what’s next and help us reach our goals

Finally, depression may have positive side-effects.  A recent study found that depressed individuals perform better than their non-depressed peers in decision making tasks.  In the study, participants played a computer game in which they could earn money by hiring an applicant in a simulated job search.  The game assigned each applicant a monetary value and presented applicants one at a time in random order.  The participants had to decide when to stop and select the current applicant.  Turns out, healthy participants searched through few candidates while depressed participants searched more thoroughly and made choices that resulted in higher payoffs.  Thus, depression may actually promote analytical reasoning and persistence.

To be fair, happiness, positive thinking, and optimism have their benefits.  But maybe it isn’t always the best to –

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative

(By Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen)

Because there is a downside to up.

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2 Responses to The Downside of Up – It may not always be good to “smile tho’ your heart is aching”

  1. […] in our society.  It is also part of a larger positivity culture.  In the past, I’ve written how harmful this culture can be to many and yield few actually positive results.  And yet this culture persists.  A culture that asks us […]

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