A good majority of the time you can find me walking through the halls with a face like this … It’s not that I’m upset or judging the people around me … it’s my thinking face! What assignments do I have due tomorrow? Did I finish all of my homework? Do I have enough time in my day… to not workout? I have a lot of stuff to think about, so you can imagine how annoying it is when my train of thought is interrupted. “Cheer up, grumpy!” First off, I wasn’t grumpy, but I’m getting there. Second, even if I was grumpy, I am not a suggestion box and fake smiling won’t get my English homework done. But that’s what we’re told, right? That keeping a positive attitude all of the time allows for us to make more friends, leads to raises and promotions in our careers, and improves our overall health, reducing the risk of stroke. While there may be research to support all of these claims, the reality of it is, looking at the glass half full rather than half empty does nothing to fill up your glass.
Now I’m not saying that optimism is bad, but society has placed such a stigma on negativity and pessimism. We’re guilted into feeling bad … for feeling bad. To keep ourselves from being labeled “Debbie Downers” or pessimists, we often choose to silence our opinions. We’re too negative about negativity, but luckily, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. First, we’ll look past the grumpy exterior to see pessimism for what it truly is; second, we’ll define our frown lines as we discover how detrimental even the nicest of fake smiles can be.
Negativity has gotten such a bad wrap that people out rightly deny the fact that they even have negative thoughts. B. Cade Massey, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management says, “It’s gotten to the point where people really feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way.” Pessimism is severely misunderstood. To be a pessimist is, thanks to Websters, to be a person with “an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.” Like instead of pretending everything is okay, a pessimist would let their group of friends know that that relaxing lake that they want to go to this weekend … yeah … Leeches. Of course, it sucks being a Debbie Downer that has to ruin plans, but you know what also sucks? Leeches. That’s the beauty of pessimism. It allows us to look at situations in a way that sheds light on possible mishaps, allowing for the proper course of action to be taken to either prevent or deal with a negative situation.
So, why is it that we frown on those who see the glass half-empty? Well, we can place some blame for this stigma on Martin Seligman’s theory of learned optimism. Since the 1970s this University of Pennsylvania professor was considered to be the father of positive psychology. For decades, Seligman advocated for the use of optimism to combat unpleasant circumstances, emotions, or occurrences, ultimately shaping the way we view optimism and pessimism today. But recently Seligman’s theories have come under fire, and Seligman wrote in his latest book, Flourish, saying, “I actually detest the word happiness … The idea that optimism is always good is a caricature. It misses realism, it misses appropriateness, it misses the importance of negative emotion.” It seems as though the father of positive psychology has become a bit less positive these days … perhaps a signal for us to rethink the extent to which we value optimism.
Overly optimistic environments can be extremely counterproductive and have their fair share of negative repercussions. And while a positive environment is vital to the success of any group, what happens when things get too nice? Cups of coffee get made and smiles are exchanged, but underneath that facade of niceness is probably some hidden tension, feedback and criticism that remain unacknowledged or unheard by people who could probably benefit from your words of – albeit negative – wisdom. Science correspondent for NPR, Shankar Vedantam, explains that “Social scientists call this sort of behavior information aversion, or the ostrich effect (based on the old myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they’re scared).” And just as you’d expect, this turns out to be the worst way to escape predators.
It’s a strategy that isn’t only ineffective at escaping physical predators, but predators of the mind as well. On March 11, 2012, Sergeant Robert Bales of the U.S. Army slipped away one evening, and went to a small village in the Taliban stronghold of the Kandahar Province. It was there, between the mud-walled homes that Bales gunned down and murdered 16 Afghan civilians. Bales’ story is not just one of the horrors of war, but one that sheds light on the horrors of false positivity and the pressure we put on people to pretend everything’s okay. You see, learned optimism theories, like Dr. Seligman’s, heavily influence the psychological culture of those in the armed services, like Sergeant Bales. Soldiers feel pressure to be strong, so they put up a tough and positive front, fabricating personas that push soldiers to “fake good” until they fall apart. Doctors blamed this mentality for Bales’ actions explaining that “soldiers … deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged, under the banner of ‘resilience’”.
Clearly, not even the worst psychological illness is an excuse for Bales’ horrific actions, but the blame for this tragedy does not fall on Bales alone. His story is just one example of how detrimental our tendency to promote these strong and positive facades can be. Why is it that on average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship 7 times before she leaves for good? Why is it that 50% of soldiers suffering from PTSD don’t report it? Why is it that suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 24? Because, “Cheer up grumpy, people change.” Because “Cheer up grumpy, be army strong.” Because “Cheer up grumpy, you’ll get over it.” When we avoid issues or topics because they’re unsettling or we’re hoping for a better tomorrow we do nothing to make those realities any less real.
So, I’m sorry my face isn’t more approachable. But, I’m thinking. I’m thinking that fake smiling and pretending to be happy does a bigger disservice to both of us. I mean, I’m also thinking that yes, people who excessively complain are just annoying, I don’t need to know for the fifth time how much you hate Chemistry. But as annoying as pessimists may sometimes be, fellow pessimist, Voltaire once argued that “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable” So “cheer up grumpy,” we all find ourselves in situations that are less than ideal, but sometimes it’s okay for the glass to be half empty – just as long as you try to fill it up.
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