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Negative Brain, Positive Psychology

Finding Some Shame-Free Middle Ground I read a study a few weeks ago about how our brains are naturally wired to hold on to negative experiences over positive ones. Apparently it is connected with our “fight or flight” response and our biological wiring for survival. This isn’t new information — neuroscientists have been studying this genetic predisposition for many years and psychology has focused on our negative brains for decades — but what is new is the exploration of the connection between this scientific fact and the field of positive psychology. Positive Psychology was brought to the forefront of American culture by Martin Seligman, former American Psychology Association president, and author of a number of self-help books on happiness. The concept has taken root in our culture, experiencing widespread adoption in our business, military, education system, and in our culture as a whole. Positive psychologists seek to encourage acceptance of one's past, excitement and optimism about one's future experiences, and a sense of contentment and well-being in the present. In recent years there have been some concerns that positive psychology can do as much harm as good. Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College and author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching is an outspoken critic of the positive-psychology movement. She detects a certain high-handed moralism in Seligman’s work—a presumption that happiness is itself virtuous — and talks about something she calls TPA, the Tyranny of the Positive Attitude. Held is more of a culture critic and sees a general lack of tolerance in our culture for those who can’t smile and look on the bright side in the face of adversity. Held describes TPA as a double whammy: First, you feel bad about whatever pain has come your way, then you feel guilty or defective if you can’t be grateful for what you do have, move forward and focus on the positives. This second part of the double-punch is the most damaging, creating a sense of shame and disconnect from real feelings. Even in cases of profound loss, says Held, people are expected to get over their sadness within weeks, if not sooner. Whether you subscribe to positive psychology or not, it is important to realize that there is nothing wrong with feeling bad when life takes difficult turns. It’s OK not to be positive all the time, and it’s unrealistic to believe that you can be happy every moment. That’s not a character failing but rather a full emotional life. I think we can all agree that things are not always great, and life is a ride filled with ups and downs, good and bad. Developing habits in your life that build resiliency and bring you joy is one way to stay authentic with what is happening for you and to feel strong in the midst of the ride. After all, a full-range emotional life is a defining part of the human experience. You can build your own personal positive support system by practicing things like meditation and yoga, participating in activities that bring you joy (think tennis, dance, running, biking, time in nature, etc) and building your community and relationships. The body chemistry benefits of these things can help counteract the very real predisposition in our brains to hold onto negative experiences, thoughts and emotions.

So if you're grappling with something and today feels like one of those down days, remember that even down days -- emotions and mood -- are part of this rich and varied human experience. Work towards authenticity and seek out people and activities that feel good. You'll find your own positivity soon enough.

In health,

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