If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that people who are positive and sunny are generally phonies, fakes and full of shit. They are wearing masks that cover that the dark rot at the center of their souls or, if they’re actually happy, they’re only that way because ignorance is bliss. We all know that the darker, more cynical and more depressed someone is the more real they are, the more truth they see and the more they have to say.
I regret to inform you that this is all bullshit. Maybe not the part about the phonies – we live in a society that values image above reality, and so many unhappy people put desperate masks of positivity on, like serial killers spraying perfume to hide the smell of the rotting carcasses of their victims. These people may be giving positivity a bad name. But the rest of it – the idea that only the depressed and the morose and the negative people have truth, especially in the arts, is nonsense.
In fact it might be the exact opposite. The more I learn – or more specifically, the more I unlearn 40 years of cultural conditioning – the more I realize that being negative and cynical is actually living on easy mode. It’s the default setting, it’s the simplest way to be. It’s using your brain exactly as it was evolved to be used and not going above or beyond in any way. It’s lazy, in fact.
See, your brain has spent tens of thousands of years getting negative. From the days when humans were hunter/gatherers, our brains adapted to look out for danger – this is where your anxiety comes from, from millennia of hyper-awareness of predators and scarcity. But your brain also adapted to look for what’s wrong in general, because humans needed that. If humans hung out and just saw things were beautiful and lovely around them, they would miss that the food stores were low, or that the river was drying up, or that the wildfire smoke on the horizon was getting dangerously close.
It’s a survival mechanism – your brain is always looking for what’s wrong, what’s lacking, what isn’t right. Because ten thousand years ago those things were dangerous in the extreme; they could kill not only you but wipe out your whole tribe. Early humans needed to find the thing that was out of place, that was incorrect, because their lives depended on it.
Our lives no longer depend on it. But a couple hundred years of relative safety can’t overcome thousands of years of evolution, and so on a fundamental level our brains are STILL programmed to operate like we’re at the watering hole right next to where that big black monolith is going to show up in the morning. When you begin to realize that your brain operates, on a basic level, not all that differently from your ancestor who still had proto-human hominids in her immediate past, you can really get at why you think and do so much dumb shit.
I think there’s a second aspect that goes a long way as well – our culture is extending adolescence for decades. The kind of snarky, difficult, negative phase we all went through as teens is now lasting well into our twenties, or our thirties. And ever since the 1950s we have decided that young people should drive the culture, and as a result it’s the interests and lack of wisdom of young people that permeates our popular arts. This in turn permeates our thinking. And so the difficult, brooding artist becomes what we think of when we think of great artists and great thinkers.
But the truth is that if your default mode is to be negative and cynical and tuned in to the things that are lacking, it takes real work and effort to become positive. What’s more, it requires you to engage in single combat with your mind’s most ingrained defense systems; when you turn your attention away from what is bad or less than your mind thinks you’re ignoring danger.
That means your mind doesn’t want you focusing on the positive! Your mind, in an act of self-defense, will keep trying to make you focus on the negative, whether it be problems at work or your anxieties about that guy who didn’t return your text or the weird noise your car started making. None of these things are survival-level but your brain wants to treat them that way, because it’s the only way it knows to be.
So focusing your mind away from the negative and towards the positive – towards gratitude, towards noticing the things in your life that are good, towards understanding that even bad things can have positive outcomes – is hard. It requires more effort than being negative. And it requires that you ignore all your brain’s danger signals.
That requires bravery. You have to be brave to be positive. You have to not only ignore the danger signals from your brain, you have to be open to being hurt. You have to be open to things not working out the way you wanted them to work out; negativity is how we protect ourselves from disappointment and pain by never allowing ourselves hope for anything good in the first place. That’s not deep or truthful, it’s essentially cowardly.
But what about the phoniness? When you’re sad isn’t it phony to put on a smile and be positive? Well, sort of. Here’s the other difficult part – not living in the binary. Being positive isn’t the polar opposite of being negative; there’s a spectrum. You want to try and find a spot closer to positive on the spectrum, as it’s inappropriate to be fully positive all the time.
More than that, though, you need to still feel your feelings. If something makes you sad or you think something sucks, that’s ok. The skill is learning to not get stuck in those feelings, like the poor dinosaurs in a tar pit. The desperate phony people are the ones denying their negative emotions; the truly positive people are the ones noticing and honoring those emotions, but not allowing them to be in control.
It’s fucking hard to be positive. Left to its own devices, my brain will get negative FAST. It’ll grumble and grouse, and it’ll find a resentment and let it blossom. There’s a lot in my life for my brain to get negative about, and some days the negative wins. I work four jobs, two of them minimum wage drudge work, and when I’m elbows-deep in cleaning up someone else’s mess at a movie theater it’s hard to find the positive.
Hard but not impossible. I’ve spent two years now practicing mindfulness, and in those moments that practice and training helps me derail the negative thoughts and find something positive or even neutral to focus on; being immediately present in the moment as I do the work helps end negative thinking about the future (almost all negative thinking you have is about the future. I’ve heard it put this way – when a bear is chasing you you’re afraid of what he’ll do when he catches you. When he’s caught you, you’re no longer afraid of what he’ll do because he’s doing it – you’re afraid of what happens after you die. You’re always afraid/negative about the next thing – it isn’t that cleaning up this mess is bad, it’s the idea that you will have to clean up more messes and keep doing it forever, or that cleaning up this mess will keep you from doing what you really wanted to be doing next). It’s a lot of work, and it does not come naturally. This is living life on a harder mode.
That harder mode brings with it greater rewards. I know the difference between my internal state when I’m positive and when I’m negative. I feel better, minute to minute. What’s more, people treat me better, and I get some satisfaction in knowing that I was at the very least NOT a negative factor in their day. Doing a lot of customer service work has shown me how profoundly our moods impact one another – a person walks in the door at one of my workplaces in a negative state and I can feel it coming like a low pressure system. My mindfulness allows me to notice how their negative mood is chipping away at whatever positivity I’ve managed to cobble together in that moment. It’s intense, and so I try to not be that person to others.
In general I spend less time being miserable (although, as a human person, I still spend SOME time being miserable). My life today is demonstrably worse than it was three years ago, and yet hour-to-hour I feel better and appreciate more. It’s wild to look back at my old life and see all the good things I had going that I only saw negatively, because I was living in the easiest mode, defaulting to the negative. I think I was maybe more grateful at the time then other people I knew (you’d be stunned at the stuff that entertainment journalists complain about), but I still rolled my eyes at half of everything and sneered at what remained. My focus on negativity extended even to the things and people I liked, and there was nothing in my life I could not undercut with a snide remark. That wasn’t wise, meaningful or deep… and it definitely didn’t make me any happier.
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