Recently a friend posted on Facebook that, after years of struggle against two different kinds of cancer, she was going into hospice care. She is smart, funny and unfraid. Her heartbreaking news generated the expected outpouring of love and support, including a number of messages repeating the popular current sentiment: You got this.
She got what? I wondered. Is she supposed to feel reassured by that? Congratulations, you’re gonna rock death! “You got this” is the popular rallying cry to any number of painful scenarios, from “My flight was delayed” to “I’m getting a divorce” to, well, this. Sometimes, we don’t got this. Which may be why several new books on happiness are also addressing the negative side of positivity — making the point that, while the pursuit of happiness is a worthy goal, relentless positivity doesn’t really lead us to that goal, and can actually end up damaging us. The happiness scholar Tal Ben-Shahar compares the relentless pursuit of happiness, happiness as a value, to sunlight. The sun is vital for life on earth, but if you stare directly at it, you can go blind.
“Positivity lingo lacks nuance, compassion and curiosity. It comes in the form of blanket statements that tell someone how to feel and that the feeling they’re currently having is wrong,” writes the therapist Whitney Goodman in TOXIC POSITIVITY: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy (TargerPerigee, 304 pp., $26). In other words, if it’s bad to harsh someone’s mellow, it’s sometimes worse to mellow someone’s harsh. The book is a bracing tonic meant to counteract society’s pressure to be a living, breathing smile emoji. “Toxic positivity,” Goodman explains, comes out of an understandable desire to fix things — but when we can’t, we become stressed and feel helpless.
She details the situations where positivity ends up being, as she puts it, “a Band-Aid on a bullet wound”: when you’re dealing with grief from death or abandonment, job loss, racism and homophobia or mental health issues. Sometimes all we want is for someone to acknowledge how awful a situation is and just sit with us. We don’t need advice or to have someone tell us how resilient we are.
Much of Cy Wakeman’s LIFE’S MESSY, LIVE HAPPY: Things Don’t Have to Be Perfect for You to Be Content (St. Martin’s, 256 pp., $28.99) is conventional happiness palaver, and some of it strikes me as just plain wrong. (“Stress and suffering don’t come from reality, they come from the stories we make up about reality.” Really? Tell that to the poor Mississippi woman who needs an abortion.). She also contradicts herself. At one point, in decrying victimhood, she states, “Anything but gratitude is just a tantrum” — and a few chapters later, she’s telling us to “feel all your feels.” Hmm. What if I feel like I’m going to punch the next person who tells me to be grateful?
But what’s useful about this book — by an executive business coach who has faced being broke, homeless and alone at points — is that it encourages us to give up the idea that being in control is essential to happiness. In fact, Wakeman says, this belief may be one of the single biggest impediments to contentment.
Wakeman is an excellent storyteller, and her stories are particularly helpful when discussing how to move through a period of loss — and how other cultures are significantly better at dealing with death than we are. She describes a father from Africa whose 6-year-old daughter died in a bike accident. What could be worse? Social workers who encountered him didn’t think he was appropriately sad — but, Wakeman writes, “His daughter had a short, blessed life. When he thought of her, he told me, he could only feel grateful and happy. ‘She tasted the very sweetest part of life,’ he said.” We can’t always will ourselves to reframe the tragedy, but I will think of this story the next time I hear of a beloved child’s death.
HAPPY PEOPLE ARE ANNOYING (HarperOne, 256 pp., $26.99) It is not, as I thought when I picked it up, a traditional self-help book on how to tame the pathologically cheerful among us. It is, rather, an amusing and smart memoir by the Nickelodeon actor and YouTube star Josh Peck, whose life checks all the boxes about how comedians are fueled by sadness. But he does offer some interesting insights about the role of misery as a motivator.
After a fatherless childhood (or rather, a childhood knowing that he had a father somewhere — a great father to other kids — just not one interested in getting to know him), Peck spent years filling that void with food, drugs and alcohol. That pursuit of happiness first resulted in obesity and then, deftly subbing one substance for another, years of drug addiction. When he stopped chasing the pretense of happiness and started spending time in AA, he began to reclaim his life. Here, Peck learned to “be in the efforts business, not in the results” — because by putting in the effort, the results will follow. While he doesn’t give us precise GPS directions for turning our lives around, the changes he made in his own life, the focus on others and not on himself, suggest a map we can follow.
Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”