Instead of toxic positivity, unrealistic expectations, sickly sweet flattery and “happy” lies, a more grounding approach to life is happy pessimism, realistic expectations, and a feeling of true stability.
Happy pessimism? How can this be?
What’s the opposite of fake happiness?
Happiness stems from something much more than simply thinking positively. Happiness comes to us in the moments where we are truly grateful for what we have, when we are in the moment and not stuck in the past or constantly in the future, and when our expectations of everything are at zero. We are happy when we are prepared and not disappointed, disappointment stemming from our projections and expectations of what we thought was reality.
These truly happy outlooks on life, aka as mindsets, are not achieved by useless soul-crushing fantasies or giddying go-getter goals and expectations that sadly lack the foundation of any honest assessment of reality. True happiness has dreams and goals, for sure, but the key is balance. Denying yourself pessimism and the range of emotions you have as a human is as much as a sin as never dreaming and giving up before you try.
What does fake happiness look like?
It begins with subtle lies that you tell yourself in moments where you do not feel happy. You think you need to ‘be positive’, and you do everything you can to avoid the uncomfortable sadness or disappointment you are feeling. You buckle down because you’ve read that negativity is not an option. Ignore that thought, and fake it til you make it. ‘Be happy’ and maybe you will catch up on the inside.
Rarely will this blind fake happiness have the substance you are looking for though. The happiness you desire is in an entirely opposite approach – one that research upholds and the Stoics embraced with everything in their core. It’s about facing reality, accepting the starkness of facts, and being completely ok with them, in order to rise above.
Research has shown that the toxic positivity and neo-optimism so many of us accept as a healthy coping mechanism does not equal happiness. It also shows us that there is much less of a correlation between positive thinking and success than the neo-optimists would like to admit. Seeing the positive side and engaging in active delusion is surprisingly not the edge to success.
What’s the real problem with fake happiness and neo-optimism?
Neo-optimism and toxic positivity drives flawed thinking straight into the core of us – because if we come to believe that positive thinking alone rewards us with happiness, success, our desires, money, and our social likeability, then anything that is not inherently positive will threaten our carefully protected ecosystem, or should I say, ego-system.
Unfortunately for us, we live in a world where terrible things happen sometimes. We lose things, we make mistakes, we fail, we experience the darkness of others and ourselves – lies, betrayal and pain. We are, at times, at the whim of our environments. Even the survivalists have the Rule of 3 – to survive you must find oxygen within 3 minutes, shelter within 3 hours, water within 3 days, and food within 3 weeks. The point is that we can control very little in our lives, and many things are negative or perceived as negative to us. No matter how we see them though, they will undoubtedly happen. To us. To everyone.
If we think our fake happiness and a neo-optimistic attitude will ward off any normal inevitable negativity, pessimism, realism, or failure, we are in for a surprise. It will knock us down even more to a level of disempowerment and fake happiness.
Someone in this thinking pattern will feel the discouragement deeply after experiencing negativity. They will be encouraged to engage in more delusion and ignore the reality around them, inhibiting valuable feedback. It becomes a matter of faith, and instead of energising themselves towards acceptance of reality, solutions, and plans; that energy is put into the thinking patterns that deny their humanity, invalidate their own experience, and dull the need to take in real-world data in order to start changing things effectively.
If positive thinking is all you need for success, then failure is never an option. If you fail, you are the problem, well – your thinking is. The neo-optimists’ truth is “all you need to do is believe in yourself”. What does that even mean? And if only this was the case. How many people engage in positive thinking rigorously, religiously, devotedly, and yet they are not where they want to be and they are unhappy?
What’s the alternative to toxic positivity and fake happiness?
Painfully, I put forward the idea that the edge to happiness is twofold – acceptance and the ability to change. And to change as a person, you need to learn. You need to be wrong. You need to experience negativity and be ok with it, without chasing it away. Happiness is so much more than positivity. Happiness and personal success are fluid notions, and when comparison rears its ugly head, it’s easy to dismiss your own or another’s experience. Ultimately, only you can decide what your success is and what makes you happy.
My definition of success is a direction of “becoming a better, stronger and happier person every day”, and this usually means having your needs met and a purpose to achieve.
Donald Robertson, an author who has 20+ years specialising in teaching evidence-based psychological skills says this:
“Recent psychological research tends to show that people who are able to accept unpleasant thoughts and feelings, without being overwhelmed by them, are more resilient than people who try to distract themselves or avoid such experiences, through strategies such as positive thinking.”
One of the most dangerous things about fake happiness and toxic positivity is the fear a person has when they naturally begin experiencing negativity in some way. Even just believing that negative thoughts or feelings are inherently bad for you is damaging – you start feeling guilty for the natural processing of the world and environment around you. And guilt is a completely useless and destructive emotion.
What’s the way forward?
Misery and despair are symptoms. You can’t solely think them away as much as you can’t think your broken arm away. Thinking you can is ridiculous, so why do we treat our environment with so much disdain? Why disrespect ourselves and others so much we refuse to be honest and accept the moment as it is? I am in no way saying we should accept these symptoms and embrace them in order to live with them, but rather so we can remove them with real-world effectiveness and make changes in our environment.
The happiest I am is when I stop living in the future and the past, and accept the moment for what it is. If something bad happens, it happens. When I fail, I fail. When loss is made, it’s made. Of course, this is the same for moments when things go right. Positive thinking cannot outrun or manipulate reality, and believing it can will lead to toxic thoughts and a life that never changes, repeating the same mistakes. I guess I learnt the hard way.
I sure don’t “think properly” all the time. When I try to use only positive thinking or blind optimism, I become even more powerless and miserable in the situation. It’s because changes must be made and with fake happiness, I am not equipped to make them. That would require admitting some things are wrong and that thought in itself is negative…. Should I then avoid thinking that way?
No! Admitting things are wrong is good. It’s data. It’s information. It’s a way to move forward.
Yes, much of the power of life is in your thoughts. But what you think does not need to be fantasies, delusions or lies. What you think should be accurate, truthful, and efficient (empowering).
Delightful pessimism is missing in this world now, and all I know is I feel happy and more prepared for life when I take it in as honestly as possible, when I look at what I have rather than on what is unpromised and unreal.
Faith-based anticipation of only “good” things doesn’t make it magically happen, let alone make it easier. It only dampers real change that we need, and yes, that change can be painful, and that’s ok.