How many times has someone told you to “smile” and “be happy” when you felt sad, angry, or anxious?
There is no doubt that positive thinking deeply permeates American culture and seeps into our sunny Claremont campus. The way we continue to endorse this ideology even in the most depressing circumstances has its harms.
Barbara Ehrenreich, political activist and acclaimed author of “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” ascribes the constant pressure to act cheerfully to the all-American belief in mandatory optimism. As a breast cancer survivor, Ehrenreich speaks about the foibles of the 'pink ribbon culture,' a culture that relentlessly promotes positive thinking.
When she was diagnosed with the disease, she felt scared and frustrated. People assured her that cancer was a 'growth experience,' implying that it was a gift—not even a tragedy. For her, the comments were anything but comforting. Ehrenreich describes positive thinking as an ideological force that “encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”
When Pomona College boasts one of the 'happiest' student bodies in the nation, students feel the need to sustain such a reputation. Often times, this pressure to maintain positivity suffocates the victim, who feels additionally burdened by the very failure to think positively. Pomona in particular has taken steps to normalize unhappiness, such as Dean Feldblum assuring Class of 2019 during orientation that “it’s okay to not be okay.”
Yet on the broad cultural level, the endemic advocacy for optimism has us uttering platitudes like, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay” or “Hey, think positive!” when reassuring the distressed. But why are we demanding forced smiles from people grappling with life’s difficulties? This deliberate turning of a blind eye to the abyss that is someone else’s situation and demanding positivity is not only insensitive, but willful ignorance.
We consequently suppress our negative emotions. Not surprisingly, we have conceived the notion that the most ebullient and peppy personalities are signs of the healthiest. An article from Mayo Clinic lists the putative health benefits of positive thinking—lower rates of depression, better psychological well-being, less stress. But these claims are inflated.
In fact, many don’t realize that there are benefits of well-being from negativity. Tori Rodriguez, a psychotherapist and contributor to Scientific American, argues that misery is vital to mental health. Rodriguez refers to a 2012 study which suggests that stifling negative alcohol-related thoughts produces stronger stress responses. Furthermore, a New York Times article reveals that the more optimistic women were about how they would fare in a weight-loss program, the fewer pounds they lost.
With our culture’s prevailing bias towards optimism, it is easy to dismiss unpleasant realities, to the point where we dismiss them for others. On Claremont’s year-round sunny campus, a collective mask of 'happy' college students is worn and student mental health risks being affected by this dominant culture of mandatory optimism. Altogether, we as individuals can be more cognizant about our unintentional perpetuation of 'pink ribbon culture.' Mindful interactions, as small as listening to someone’s struggles rather than imposing cheerfulness, add up and foster meaningful, honest community building. Through these most routine interactions, we can realize the power of embracing misery in deconstructing our culture’s assumptions about happiness.
Justina Wu PO ’19 hails from Bellevue, WA and intends to major in public policy analysis and sociology.