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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Wish it Away: The Dystopian Side of Positivity Culture

Hello hello!

As I tidy up the loose ends and incorporate beta-reader feedback for The Meaning Wars, the third installment in the series of the same name (also including And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories), I find myself on Quartz and The Establishment fairly often, doing research and reading coincidental articles that often align with ideas I'm trying to express. Recently, Quartz had a piece on a psychologist's research about positivist and 'happiness culture' that struck home.  Then I saw this on Facebook, and after a short, friendly conversation on Twitter, an article was born.

What is 'positivity culture'? 

The Self-help and pop psychology industries are sources of this, but it's not without links to modern Christianity, either. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" author Dale Carnegie, and more recently, The Secret have endorsed the idea that, in a nutshell, thinking about good things makes them happen and makes bad things less likely to happen.

This sounds simple, innocent, and feasible, and that's partly why it's so popular. It's hard to object to something as inoffensive as the proposition, 'be happy to be happier'. In a world where mental health issues are at an all-time high, though, it has sinister and unpleasant ramifications. Since the self-help industry preys on people in distress, these books - and many employment policies - effectively end up telling people in bad situations to 'just think differently' to fix their problems.

This is at best, naive, and at worst, insulting. When the issue is a lack of neurotransmitters and the right chemicals, wishing them into existence doesn't do the trick. But as with eugenics in the old days, it's more pernicious than just accentuating 'good traits'. The problem comes from refusing to deal with, accept, or acknowledge negative emotions and experiences on an institutional level. When people essentially get punished at work or socially for not faking happiness, it gets difficult.

Anyone who's worked in the service or retail industries (hello!) can relate to this; faking a cheerful, peppy, or calm attitude even when one feels otherwise, and being subservient in most or all interactions causes a sensation of distress and can be triggering for those with anxiety issues or depression. More dangerously, the fake happiness can mask more severe symptoms of depression and other disorders, and train people in these situations that reaching out and being honest about their feelings is more dangerous or less safe than 'faking happiness' or normalcy. Particularly in the early stages of depression, this is a serious danger, because treating depression and anxiety early on can help prevent nervous breakdowns - like the one your dear author had a couple of years ago.

What's the worst that could happen? 

This is one of my favorite question, because it can lead to absurdist or sinister trains of thought in almost any situation. The thing is, I've had a taste of the weirdness that is extreme happiness culture. After surviving the strangely repressive experience and the weird culture of fake enlightenment that permeated the Addictions Counselling faculty where I studied for my degree, I got a taste of what the worst looked like. Even as I studied ways to make clients open up and feel safe talking about the most difficult events in their lives, myself and other students were graded on our weekly lab sessions, where we had to disclose real personal information and family trauma or risk failing the course.

Without so much as a legal waiver to protect us from gossip and each other, people learned to be selective about what they disclosed and how they protrayed events and emotions. Being comfortable with trauma was treated as 'not understanding it enough yet', but being too honest about, say, any sort of bad decision led to peer disapproval and shunning. In the context of a degree program where authenticity and acceptance were supposed to be the ideals, it was bizarre and not a little damaging.

Through my mother's social circle as well as the department, I also got a unique look into the dark side of the New Age movement. There were no sex cults or drug orgies to be found, disappointingly; no, in the realm of yoga classes taught by and for white people, positivity and motivational posters (yes, the real ones, with black borders and inspiring photos and vague captions), and wellness retreat weekends, there was only Healthy Living.

I'm not saying my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood were entirely a wasteland of vacuous smiles, diet Buddhism, culturally appropriated rituals, and crash diet and exercise routines, but those elements were certainly omnipresent. A stint in a private school with unique and bizarre architecture - classrooms facing into windowed halls, a library that could be entirely observed through indoor windows, and a perfectly positioned stair platform, no hidden corners or stairwells - also gave me a taste of what it was like to watched constantly by professors and other students without any form of egress.

No joke, I grew up with these around the house and school. 

The dark side of 'enlightenment' 

Combined with the pervasive whiteness - both in the interior decorating sense and the cultural group context - of these settings, I got a deep look into the weirdness that is the liberal side of conservatism. In more recent times, as the 'All Lives Matter' crowd rose up and discussions of white feminism took to the air, I had another opportunity to see how certain forms of debate and discussion could be suppressed once people found them 'too unpleasant'. It's the Taylor Swift school of feminism: 'girl power' that has no impact on anything, no ramifications, no real cost. It spliced neatly with happiness culture, because discussing actual inequality issues can conflict with the goal of 'not focusing on negativity'.

What this has to do with science fiction 

It's a common element of dystopias that citizens are miserable, often in a sort of pseudo-Communist situation - highly ironic, in the context of current events and the lack of adequate housing and nutritious food for so many in America. But instead of merely swallowing their feelings for stoicism, I wanted to explore a world of vigilant attention to peacefulness. Taking inspiration from both dark sides of some North American Christian cultures and the suspiciously similar white Buddhist/spiritual movement, I merged the values to create a setting of oppressive faux-tolerance, where real inequality and deprivation were comfortably distant, but people nonetheless lived in fear of judgement from others and humiliating or dangerous punishment.

And thus, The Meaning Wars were born.


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