By Georgia Waters
“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”
Martha Washington (1732–1802)
Whilst researching ‘positivity’, I came across a lot of material debating whether positivity is the answer. In fact it was a discussion on Woman’s Hour this week (fast forward to 19 minutes). Jane Garvey herself admits that she gets ‘through life on a tidal wave of low expectations’. Indeed there seems to be some evidence that backs this attitude, however, confusingly, there’s also a lot to be said for an optimistic apporach. Then we have Alain De Botton, furiously fighting for the wisdom of pessimism. As a seasoned pessimist myself, I was quite interested in watching this. However, I couldn’t get away from the bleakness of it. How exhausting to wake up everyday and expecting it to be awful… Also, what a waste. My favourite phrase from the talk (not because of it’s usefulness) is ‘tomorrow will probably be worse’…If you are ending each day with that in mind, how will you find the energy to get up in the mornings? I do understand the theory behind it: Happiness= Expectations — Reality. So if our expectations are lower, then reality isn’t able to take much away from them. However, my gut feeling is that this can’t be a very happiness inducing approach to life. One of the important points to take from Alain de Botton, is that as life being bad, we may as well fill it with laughter. When I am feeling low, I look at this picture.
It never fails to make me laugh, and naturally in doing so, I feel much better. Humour allows us to laugh at the difficult moments in our life, and detracts slightly from the heaviness, and gives us back a little control. The internet is full of memes that are laughing at difficult moments we all share. It makes us feel better, and it makes us not feel alone. We may not be able to control the uncomfortable events in life, but we can certainly control how we respond to them.
However, we can also control how we feel in our daily lives too. As this Skills You Need article explains, most negative emotions are to do with survival (fear, anger etc). This is what Alain de Botton was getting at in the school of life, and it’s not often I disagree with him. However, in our modern lives, we have less need for these negative survival emotions. If prolonged over a period of time, these emotions can actually be quite damaging. The article refers to a test in California where different groups were asked to do a task after seeing images to trigger different emotional responses. The outcome was that positive thinking produced a lot more options, and these groups were able to think much more creatively. Negative thoughts, according to this study, channel us in one direction. It also give some great advice on how to start being more positive, starting with writing down positive events that have happened that day. Verywell says to see it as a muscle, something that you have to practice doing. Having started training myself to see each day more positively, I can honestly say that it brings me more satisfaction and happiness than expecting the worst each day. However, I am also very tempered when it comes to future expectations. I’m still very much more negative when it comes to the future, and I guess this is simply that it is the unknown and my natural reaction is to be frightened by this rather than assume it will be a garden or roses. But I don’t mind that, if I’m actively expecting to enjoy my days, but preparing for the unknown at the same time, I think I’m aiming for a balance.
This brings me to this guardian article on Optimism vs Pessimism. It gives a good list of the pros and cons of both. Pros of optimism include: better mental and physical health, quicker recovery rates after illnesses and operations, lower stress, longer life, higher trust in others and thus better relationships. Pessimism’s pros include: better at budgeting, better insured, on time. I mean, looking at these two lists, in an ideal world, you would have a mixture of both, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to aim for. Which is why I’m going to leave you with this quote:
This is the precept by which I have lived: Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes.