I went to a lecture recently in which the speaker led us in an exercise. She had us close our eyes while she said “No, no, no! Yes, yes, yes!” Then she asked how we felt with each word. People answered that they felt sad when she said no, and happy and upbeat when she said yes. But my response was very different: I was annoyed.
Later (after chastising myself for my crankiness), I figured out that my frustration arose for two reasons, one of which I’ll discuss in this post (I’m leaving the second for the next post). The first is that I don’t believe that happiness is a simple concept. The idea that merely listening to the word “yes” can change our perspective and make us joyful seems like a ridiculous oversimplification. It’s not that far from the statement, “Don’t worry, be happy,” which I find a dangerous cliché. It infers that positivity is always under our control, so if you’re not happy, you’re just not trying hard enough. But if depressed people could think themselves happy in some one-step, no-fail way, then they would already have done it.
This kind of wishful thinking is reflected in trends like "The Secret," the book Oprah Winfrey touted that advises us that if we put out positive vibes, our lives will be filled with more positive things, like money and relationships. Visualize your dreams coming true, and they will. This sounds lovely, and probably feels good, but the flip side of it is the belief that if you don’t have money and strong relationships, it’s because you just haven’t wished for it diligently enough.
The truth is, positive thinking is an important part of treating depression. But it isn’t easy or, for many people, natural. A complex practice of gratitude, affirmations and confidence-boosting can lift one’s mood and clear one’s mind-—over weeks of concentrated repetition. “Just say yes,” “Don’t worry, be happy” or “You get back what you put out” are oversimplified clichés that carry the judgment that if you just put the smallest amount of effort into it, you’d be all better. To that, I just say no.