“Concerned about global warming? Appalled by the way money corrupts the democratic process? Notice that the restaurant manager is bullying his staff? If you’re on a date, better keep those observations to yourself.
Experts might disagree on how assertive or vulnerable or chatty one should be with the opposite sex, but on the subject of optimism we see near universal consensus: Smile, sweetheart.
And who could argue with that? We all know people who whine and complain endlessly, or whose depression puts them in a state of near paralysis. So obviously certain conversation topics–your meth-addicted father, your knee surgery (shit; that’s a great story)–usually make lousy getting-to-know-you conversation fodder.
But most of us already have the social grace to not overshare about our tax audits or plantar warts. Unfortunately, the incessant mantra of “be positive” (can I get a secular “Amen?”) implies that anyone who doesn’t like her job or has a complicated relationship with her family–a fairly wide swath of the population–must paper over these edgy truths with perky platitudes about bosses who are tough but fair.
Even though I’ve always had what I consider a…realistic view of life (I’m improving), I tried to obey the common wisdom and keep it light and upbeat when dating.
On the other hand, some of us hate the sound of bullshit. Some of us would rather hear, ‘You know, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years and I really don’t like the direction my profession is headed in, and I’m honestly pretty confused about what to do next.’ Whether a person is a ‘downer’ or refreshingly honest is a matter of taste.
Still, even if the dating gurus go overboard, wouldn’t cultivating a positive attitude be a, you know, positive thing to do?
Not necessarily. In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, journalist Oliver Burkeman explains how trying to suppress negative thoughts can actually make them more prevalent–trying not to think of pink elephants wildly ratchets up your awareness of pink elephants. This is why instructions to ‘think positively’ don’t work.
‘From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity…A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in,’ wrote Burkeman in the New York Times.
The ‘be positive’ advice makes you fear the dark. You’ve got all the lights turned on, constantly vigilant. Rather than trying to eradicate negativity, Burkeman takes inspiration from the Buddhists: It’s a far more effective strategy to clearly see unfortunate circumstances or unpleasant emotions for what they are–part of life, nothing to freak out about. He sums up this philosophy with words from 1960s counterculture philosopher Alan Watts: ‘When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink. But when you try to sink, you float.'” (p. 16-19) (all parenthetical asides are mine)