You will no doubt have seen it all over Instagram, Twitter or even on a t-shirt of a passer-by in the street. It is especially prominent on Pinterest.
The term ‘Good Vibes Only’.
Either that or some other variation of positive thinking or positive energy or however you want to phrase it.
I will start out by saying that I both like and can relate to the intentions of many people who live by this mantra. We are living in extremely complex times where we are connected to each other 24/7, job markets are shifting, mental health is suffering and everything is just a little bit hectic. You don’t have to look far on social media or just turn on the news to be bombarded with all of the negativity and problems of the world and its many citizens. Not to mention all of the global issues that our generation is the first to have to deal with. It’s certainly a lot to take in.
That is where I can sympathise with ‘good vibes only’.
The standard message from this seems to be a sort of keep out negativity and to cultivate your own environment of positivity. I do this to a degree myself. I don’t watch the news anymore and get most of my information from the world via books, articles from good sources, friends and family. I listen to a lot of podcasts that talk about wellbeing and the importance of finding light in the dark so to speak. In fact, I think that making the best out of horrible situations and finding the silver linings in the clouds is a sign of a very strong, admirable character. It is what I am working toward in my own life.
The issues with ‘good vibes only’
However, as I have found out the positive thinking and good vibes only movements can have some nasty flip-sides to them that can actually compound the problem. For me personally, the modern definition of ‘positive thinking’ and general use of things like positive quotes are making problems even worse. This is something that I believe needs to be re-evaluated if we want to try and navigate this chaotic world a little bit better. Something about the whole movement always seemed a bit ‘off’ to me and I am glad that I did decide to take a step back and try to understand what was really going on for myself.
The first problem I realised was that ‘good vibes only’ implies the absence of any sort of negativity. At a personal level, consciously and constantly making sure that I was always thinking positively inevitably made things ten times worse when some sort of negativity set in, or at least when the positivity subsided. Why am I not being positive? Why am I feeling a bit down when I’ve had a great day? Why am I not feeling great about this project anymore? Is there something wrong with the project? Is there something wrong with me?
All of these compounding questions usually left me in a bit of messy mindset, scrambling for some positivity to cling on to from somewhere. To avoid these awful negative thoughts like the plague or at least superficially gloss over them so they seem positive again.
Well, it took me a little while to realise that I am, in fact, a human being.
I am just as susceptible to fear, anxiety and boredom as I am to purpose, joy and optimism. I am allowed to feel like shit for no reason sometimes just like I am allowed to feel fantastic after a hard day’s work. These are all part of the beautiful spectrum of the human experience and it took me a while to realise that not only can I not evade negative emotions all of the time, I shouldn’t want to. Winning a football match 3-2 is always more satisfying and exciting than winning 10-0. Submitting a good piece of work is only satisfying after you have suffered hours of frustration beforehand. Seeing my family and friends is much more special after it’s been a long time away. I think that the ‘only positive thinking’ mindset forgets these things. It forgets the importance and inevitability of the negative. As The Scribble Bug puts it:
If you do not recognise and accept and move through the spectrum of those thoughts, happiness becomes limited. You cannot have positive thinking without negative emotions.
You can’t and shouldn’t avoid it, rather embrace it and enjoy all of the human emotions on offer to you. Filling my mind with positivity quotes and mantra only fulfilled the task of covering the inevitable outbreak of cracks with nice little thin sheets of paper. Rather than be hidden, the cracks are where you can truly let the light in.
The second issue I have found with the ‘good vibes only’ movement is the bubble that it can often create between oneself and the outside world. As I mentioned briefly in the intro, I think that this bubble can certainly be useful in some situations. If you open yourself up to all of the negativity in the world, particularly negativity and problems that are out of your control, you are going to have a tough time. However, the problem lies when good vibes and positivity get in the way of issues in your own life that you could and probably should be trying to solve, despite all of the negative emotions that it will bring about
From my own experience, it is the classic elephant in the room analogy. The huge elephant in the room is often ignored thanks to a nice smokescreen of positivity and that all things negative, even if important, are unwelcome. The problem with the elephant is that if left ignored, it starts to gradually knock over things in the room, moving about until it gets attention. Those smashed vases and dints in the wall release feelings of resentment, toxicity and growing anxiety. Addressing the elephant or the problem head-on is important and will undoubtedly bring about uncomfortable emotions and situations. But they are necessary to clearing out the elephant and getting your living room back.
It’s definitely a tough ask, especially if you think that you are ‘negativity-phobic’ as I discovered that I was to quite an extent. From Luna’s excellent post on this subject, she lists the following signs that you may be negativity-phobic:
- You can’t handle criticism well, even if it is well-meant and you often feel upset
- You feel unusually defensive or on-guard around others
- You’re highly sensitive to people’s thoughts and opinions about you
- You intentionally try to block out all forms of negativity in your life
- You refuse (or struggle) to acknowledge your shadow or ‘darker side’
- You avoid people or situations that create uncomfortable feelings in you at all costs
- You feel intense and overwhelming emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, or disgust when you’re confronted with a negative person
How many of these boxes do you tick?
The dangerous positivity bubble also seems to be extending even further than our personal lives. I have found that when you become so wrapped up in only positivity, then you actually become harmful to your own wellbeing. Taking a few of the points from the checklist, any sort of criticism is taken to heart and treated as both hostile and wrong. Anyone with a different opinion or a different idea to yours is being ‘negative and unhelpful’. This unfaltering positivity protective bubble can easily slip into entitlement: that you have a right to feel positive all of the time and anyone who jeopardises that is in the wrong. That just isn’t true and it is really hard to realise sometimes. Nobody has a right to feel positive all of the time. As I said earlier, nobody should want to feel positive all of the time either – it leaves you vulnerable. The more you reside in your own ‘good vibes only’ bubble, the more fierce and frightened you become protecting it. There are situations and people that are going to make you uncomfortable and anxious, people that are going to say things you don’t agree with, people that are going to make you feel ‘negative’ and bring your beliefs into question. This is just another part of living on a complex planet living with complex people. Paradoxically, the sooner I realised this, the happier and more positive I became about my own life.
Redefining Positive Thinking
So where do we go from here? After a bit of thinking, I believe that we simply need to redefine what ‘positive thinking’ and ‘good vibes’ are. I believe that the current versions were set with very good intentions and can be very useful, but they got lost somewhere along the way. It is time to bring them back. Here is my best go at it:
Positive thinking and good vibes are the emotions that we love so much and are key to our experience here on earth. These involve feelings such as gratitude, joy and hope. Realising all of the blessings in your life when the shit hits the fan at work. The hope that things are going to get better in difficult periods, and that you have the toughness to tackle and conquer those issues. The sheer joy of embracing a loved one. The ability to share your dreams and nightmares with your closest friends. These are real positive thoughts and good vibes. The key is that they often also integrate some sort of negativity or at least emotions at the more challenging end of the spectrum. They also require important action which is key.
An article I read on Forbes had a nice quote related to redefining positive thinking and that we should be aiming for something called ’emotional agility’:
The ability to be aware of and receptive to all kinds of shifts in thinking and the emotions they create, without getting toppled by them.
That is embracing the full spectrum of human emotions, good and bad. Detaching and becoming aware of what you are feeling and possibly why you are feeling it. I am feeling anxious about this. I am stressed out about this. I am ecstatic about this. I am not happy about this. Recognising and accepting each of these as they arise, and then taking a deep breath after every single one of these and going ‘damn, it feels good to be alive.’ That is a tough ask. Heck, it might even be an impossible ask. But it seems to be a much better version of positive thinking and one certainly worth aiming for.
Here’s to you experiencing some true good vibes in your life.
Loved this post, Dan; wonderfully done!
The nearest to my thoughts are the ‘Forbes’ quote: “The ability to be aware of and receptive to all kinds of shifts in thinking and the emotions they create, without getting toppled by them.”
My take is: See all things very clearly, however, remain objective and unaffected.
This attitude has taken me some years to create. For many years I was unable to watch the news; negativity crushed me, so to speak.
However, cultivating an attitude of seeing the reality of all things, good, bad and indifferent, is a brand new world; one that allows me to nurture a sense of wellbeing within a stable frame of mind; mine.
Without being cognizant of all those energies you’ve written about is being limited to the vast array of human potential. Though here I make a condition: Without the ability to turn off the negative responses to many of those energies leaves us open to harm.
Completely agree Carolyn! And I especially like your point about watching the news and the negativity that can then so often leak into our personal lives and our view of the world. It is important to accept and be receptive of our negativity, but realise when the situation is in our control and when it is not. It’s important to realise that there is a difference between negativity that can sometimes manifest itself naturally as part of the human condition vs negativity imposed by external forces. They should be treated very differently when it comes to how we think and how we respond.