I’ve always hated the idea that one can choose their attitude. When I was in junior high, we spent a year focusing on the FISH! philosophy, the idea that no matter how bad of a job you have, if you have fun, choose a positive attitude, make someone’s day, and smile, you can have fun. I thought this was ridiculous. If I was feeling sad it didn’t make any sense to me that I could simply magic away the unhappy feeling by deciding I didn’t want to feel bad anymore.
In many ways I was picking up on some important things as a little eleven year old. The prioritizing of a positive attitude as the cure all for any negative feelings is certainly a way to tell people with depression or mental illness that their suffering is probably their own fault, because if they simply chose a better attitude then things would feel better (like magic! It’s The Secret!). It’s certainly possible for many people to be overly negative of their own volition, but for those with mental illness, it often takes all of our energy simply to combat the negative thoughts that spring into our minds unbidden. It is not a choice that we see every negative thing in stark detail, immediately see how everything is our fault, and have to struggle to notice positive things.
So there are certainly ways in which the concept of “choosing a positive attitude” is harmful and really just awful advice. But recently I’ve been starting to see the benefits of this advice (and no, they’re not “just think happy and you’ll feel better”). Yesterday was my dad’s 60th birthday party, and as part of the festivities my mother decided that we should put on an entertainment. So we chose a bunch of songs about being old, choreographed a dance number, dressed up as old people, and lip synced to such classics as “When I’m 64”.
I was not too enthusiastic about this process. I am easily embarrassed, I’m a busy person and I didn’t want to deal with rehearsals, and it was all just a little too obnoxiously happy for my tastes. But I went with it. And we performed yesterday for my dad and his friends and some family. We had a good time. And as we finished I saw the look on my dad’s face. He was laughing so hard he was almost crying, for some reason so grateful that we’d decided to make fools of ourselves to celebrate him.
And I was suddenly quite happy that I had gone along and not let my party pooper self get the best of everyone. I wished that I had thrown a little more of myself into it. I wish that I had thought about what it would mean for him rather than how annoying it was to me. That shift in focus from self centered to other centered is what choosing my attitude means to me. This is of course never easy, and is made harder when dealing with something like depression, but it’s a far more concrete action to take than simply trying to choose to be happy or positive.
The next time I’m doing something that seems useless and silly and a pain in my ass, I’m going to try to take a few minutes to think about what my actual end goal is: who am I doing this for? Who will be smiling because I did it? If the answer is no one, then I’m certainly not going to continue the activity, but more often than not there is someone who will benefit, and focusing on the eventual payoff of seeing joy on someone’s face can help put the annoyance into context: I’m doing this in order to get that happy moment at the end.
This doesn’t mean denying that something might be unpleasant or that you’re not feeling the greatest. It doesn’t mean covering up your emotions. But sometimes shifting what you’re thinking about (and practicing the mindfulness of continually noticing when your attention wanders and bringing it back to focus) can have the unexpected consequence of bringing up your mood. Example: getting up at 9AM to rehearse a ridiculous dance routine choreographed almost entirely by nondancers sucks. However if I spent that time thinking about all the best ways that I could make my dad crack up during said routine, I probably would have had a lot more fun.
For me, shift your focus seems like a lot less pressure than choose your attitude. It gives you the space to continue feeling like shit if you really truly feel like shit. But it also says “hey, what you’re thinking about isn’t all that’s going on. Try a reframe and see what happens”. It isn’t even necessarily about positivity, but rather about moving away from focusing on self and more about focusing on systems and cause and effect: what will my behavior do for or to others?
Obviously we can’t do this all the time. It’s exhausting. And sometimes it’s really good and important to just pay attention to how you’re feeling and react to it appropriately. But if you start to notice that you’re being a party pooper and whining and others are tip toeing around you, try thinking about the end product of your actions: why are you here? Who are you helping? What can you do to make things even better for that person? Especially if it’s someone you care about, you’ll find that the shitty situation suddenly becomes oddly easy to deal with.