The perils of pressured positivity
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In recent years, our eyes have become virtually incapable of facing the glare of reality. To shade our vision, we have elevated positivity to the status of a religion – one for which there is no greater sin than feeling any emotion other than happiness. Positivity preachers tell us to limit ourselves to pleasant thoughts – no matter if they are far distant from the truth. In several corporates, HR has volunteered to lead the positivity parade. This is a mistake. Unadulterated and perennial positivity is not only unattainable but its single-minded pursuit can stunt people far short of their full potential and tempt organisations into moral lassitude.
This is not to belittle the value genuine happiness holds. In the right measure, at the right time and for the right reasons, it brings both health and longevity.1 What is being challenged here is the positivity that is recited as an unceasing and unqualified 'mantra' to force happiness to happen. That is not how happiness works. It is an epiphenomenon flowing from a variety of other pursuits including love, efforts to reach one’s highest potential or service to others and to larger causes. Attempting to short circuit the action itself and move to the consequential emotion of joy directly can leave people feeling even less satisfied than before. It is no better than using the narcotic route to mental peace.
Positivity as the opium of the people
Bad enough as it is when individuals try to reap the happiness fruit without the antecedent effort of planting and caring for the tree that yields it, the process acquires positively big brother overtones when entire organisations preach such beatitude as the guiding philosophy for employees. It lets the management off the hook for making or resisting substantial changes to benefit or protect their people. There is a huge impact corporates (and HR) can have on employee happiness and I have devoted an entire column to explaining why and how happiness should be the prime measure for evaluating HR.2 To shift that burden to the internal coping mechanisms of individual employees is a total abrogation of what the organisation owes to its people.
Let us take just three organisation-dependent unhappiness cancers. A little thought will make it obvious why internal detachment or positivity can only paracetemolize the pain but never effect a meaningful cure.
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Among the greatest stress causers and happiness destroyers for employees, and particularly for the precariat, has been job insecurity. Can anyone seriously expect such trauma or anxiety to be relieved by inner bliss or personal positivity? As Barbara Ehrenreich explains, an entire motivation-peddling industry has grown up to do precisely that. ‘The motivation industry could not repair this new reality (of large and repeated layoffs). All it could do was offer to change how one thought about it, insisting that corporate restructuring was an exhilaratingly progressive “change” to be embraced… This was the corporate world’s great gift to its laid-off employees and the overworked survivors – positive thinking.’3
For those who are fortunate to retain employment, inequity and the feeling of unfair treatment that attends it, is another major source of distress and resentment. We have dealt in considerable detail with one facet of this imbalance – that pertaining to compensation.4 What is particularly worrying in the present context is the deadening effect on the sensitivities and capabilities of decision-makers who acquire a positive frame of mind. Research has shown that ‘positive mood significantly increased, and negative mood reduced selfishness…’5 and that ‘… groups which made bad decisions [put an] … emphasis on morale rather than critical thinking.’6
A third unhappiness inducer, which is almost entirely under the organisation’s control, is poorly designed work that is repetitive, soul-deadening and empty of learning. The way to cure this malaise and the advantages of doing so have been covered in a previous column.7 It bears emphasizing, though, that anaesthetizing people’s sensitivity to work-quality through the forced administration of positive morphine is not the way to go. Whatever immediate 'gruntlement' we obtain through such measures, it can never compensate for the decline in organisational capability and employee enthusiasm.
Even if the greatest happiness of the greatest number were our ultimate goal (and there are very good reasons both for and against such an aspiration) we have seen how prescribed positivity simply provides a soporific so that people are numbed to the reality that their true welfare is being ignored. Over the long term, such tranquillisers cannot dull the pangs of insecurity, inequity and insufferable routine.
A time to laugh, a time to weep
When we shift focus from the organisation to the individual, we are first confronted with the issue of feasibility. Can happiness actually be made the sole goal and pumped into people without their having to undertake actions (such as love, work or care) that lead to happiness? Common sense, traditional prescriptions and behavioural science research, all give us an emphatically negative answer. The essential wisdom behind the tangential way to finding happiness was wonderfully conveyed by John Stuart Mill well over a century ago. ‘Those only are happy … who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.’8 In more recent times, we have study after study confirming the validity of his dictum. Thus, ‘… valuing happiness could be self-defeating because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed...’9
For the sake of argument, even if we assume individuals could raise happiness levels 'on tap', would it be an unmixed blessing? Not really. At least, not in all situations. To pick just three types of scenarios where high levels of positivity can prove to be a positive handicap, let’s look at instances in the domains of learning, information processing/judgement and interpersonal effectiveness.
Aversive emotions have played a major role in the learning that was vital for the survival and evolution of human beings. Those friends of our forebears who heard rustling in the bushes with equanimity or faced a sabre-toothed predator armed only with positivity, have not left any descendants who we can make our friends.10 This cruel joke has a major bearing on learning for career preparation and survival today. It is a source of considerable amusement for me to see the preachers of positivity and Zen-like calm get agitated and dictatorial when it comes to their children preparing for critical professional entry exams: the positivity of the learning experience can wait! When JEE comes to shove they almost seem to echo Roy Baumeister et al who state that ‘the studies we have reviewed show that punishment is stronger than reward. We were not able to find studies showing the opposite.’11 Learning that counts in the corporate context is no different. I cannot count the number of times I have been told: ‘I learned most from X, though he was a terror as a boss’ or ‘those were days of extreme stress and anxiety but, from the point of my development, I wouldn’t exchange them for all the comfortable times I have had since’. To be sure, organisations do have people averse to anger and fear. You don’t see too many of them making it to the upper echelons, however, because in the absence of learning what and whom to avoid and where and how to show their temper, they are eliminated from the running long before they reach positions from which they can display façades of fearlessness and calm (at least in front of their teams).
Central to any manager’s role, of course, is taking decisions and it is here that unadulterated positivity can play the greatest havoc. The song from which the header to this section is chosen starts with: ‘To everything … There is a season’. Of nothing can this be truer than a manager’s attitude to risk. A purely positive mindset leans executives to the side of rash action and the neglect of looming dangers. While the converse is also true, the cost of excessive caution is usually only poorer performance relative to a hypothetical maxima and the possibility of re-entering the lists another day. Betting the house, obviously, leaves the decision-maker without the house and his (yes, it’s men who generally make these euphoric calls) reputation. Most corporate roles don’t demand the devil-may-care courage of a swashbuckling pirate. When people in normative roles adopt positivity blinkers, their warning-of-danger antennae are retracted and the environment scanning they carry out ranges between cursory and non-existent. On the other hand, while those in dysphoric moods might not be the best company, they do far better at spotting pitfalls and people-faults.12 Perhaps the most dangerous part of the cognitive myopia that accompanies positivity is ‘the tendency for people to underestimate the impact of situational factors and overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behaviour, a bias sometimes labelled the 'fundamental attribution error' [FAP].’13 When the FAP is in play, teamwork suffers because of stereotyping and even constructive questioning of sultanic CEOs becomes impossible.
It is vital for leaders to judge the mood and trustworthiness of their people and persuade them meaningfully while projecting strength in their dealings with allies and adversaries. Once again, positivity has a patchy record in delivering on these demands. It is people in sad moods who are consistently better at judging deception in others as well as in developing arguments that are more convincing than those produced by the positive 'mooders'.14 When it comes to negotiations too, those who can produce sparks of anger to order, drive better bargains than do unperturbable 'smilers'.15
It is not that an upbeat attitude has no place in a leader’s repertoire. But it cannot occupy all the emotion-space of a leader all the time, to the exclusion of less joyful emotions that are equally important for survival and impact.
Progressing beyond positivity
Leaders (and, for that matter, all employees) are far better off possessing a full range of emotional responses rather than having some of them blocked off by a positivity polarizer. ‘(Y)ou don’t just have one superpower, you have many. You possess a courage enhancer (anger), an unethical behaviour derailer (guilt), … an alert sentinel standing watch over you (anxiety) … [and an] underappreciated lie detector (sadness).’16 All of them need to be marshalled in the right measure as occasions demand. Only then can one become an emotionally rounded personality that is firing on all cylinders.
There is a much larger reason we shouldn’t let the pursuit of positivity determine the story of our existence. Those who have left the greatest mark in this world, did so because they were trying to lead meaningful lives. Jim Holt’s latest book reminds us how many geniuses led miserable, even tragic, lives.17 Of course, leading a meaningful existence can also have an overlap with a happy one (happiness, in its eudaemonic sense, is not far from such a life)18 but there are some key differences between a negative-aversive happiness construct and a life of meaning. At least three key characteristics of meaningful lives correlate negatively with conventional, positivity-pumped happiness.19 These are:
- A time orientation that looks to (and prepares for) the future while being strongly cognizant of the past and which sees the present as part of this larger sequence.
- An eye to one’s relationship with society and a keenness to make some contribution to others (who are not kin).
- A willingness to suffer either in preparing for or in struggling to attain a larger purpose.
These markers of meaningfulness are virtually antonymic to the fundamental positivity formulae which are:
- Living in the moment.
- Looking inward for individual tranquillity and satisfaction.
- Avoiding personal stress even if it means blanking out news of the extreme distress of others.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to getting people exercised about making the world a better place is the rose-tinted screen that positivity imposes between them and the perils and pains of the world. This reality avoidance reminds me of the opening verse of a Flanders and Swann song about an ostrich hiding from unpleasant facts:
Peek-a-Boo, I can't see you,
Everything must be grand;
Boo-ka-Pee, they can't see me,
As long as I've got me head in the sand.
I shall leave you the fun of discovering how things end for the ostrich.20 Pure positivity seekers tend to meet similar fates.
- Sarah D Pressman and Sheldon Cohen, Does Positive Affect Influence Health?, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 131, No. 6, 2005.
- Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24 September 2019.
- Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, Picador, 2010.
- Visty Banaji, But who will guard the guardians?, People Matters, 14 March 2018.
- Hui Bing Tan and Joseph P Forgas, When happiness makes us selfish, but sadness makes us fair: Affective influences on interpersonal strategies in the dictator game, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(3), May 2010.
- Charlan Jeanne Nemeth, In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business, Basic Books, 2018.
- Visty Banaji, "If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do", People Matters, 24 April 2021.
- John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, Penguin Classics, 1989 (First published 1873).
- Iris B Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L Anderson and Nicole S Savino, Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness, Emotion, 11(4), August 2011.
- Randolph M. Nesse, Natural Selection and the Elusiveness of Happiness, Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences, 359 (1449), October 2004.
- Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and K Vohs, Bad Is Stronger than Good, Review of General Psychology, December 2001.
- Kate L Harkness, Mark A Sabbagh, Jill A Jacobson and Neeta Chowdrey, Enhanced accuracy of mental state decoding in dysphoric college students, Cognition and Emotion, 19(7):999-1025, September 2010.
- Joseph Forgas, On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 318–331, 1998.
- Joseph Forgas, Feeling and Doing: Affective Influences on Interpersonal Behavior, Psychological Inquiry, January 2002.
- June Gruber, Iris B Mauss and Maya Tamir, A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(3):222-233, May 2011.
- Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, The Power of Negative Emotion: How Anger, Guilt, and Self Doubt are Essential to Success and Fulfillment, Oneworld Publications, 2015.
- Jim Holt, When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2019.
- E L Deci and R M Ryan, Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: An introduction, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2008.
- Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 6, 505–516, 2013.
- Flanders and Swann, The Ostrich Song,