YouTube star PewDiePie has attacked ‘forced positivity’ in a recent video. Conrad looks at whether this is a good thing.
PewDiePie perhaps my favorite YouTube star. There’s a reason for that. At times he can be pretty juvenile, yes, but there’s an artistry in what he does.
And this has become more and more apparent as he and his videos continue to grow and develop over the years. For me this has culminated in something important. Yesterday, he attacked something he called ‘forced positivity’ on YouTube.
What the YouTube star was calling out was the glut of filmmakers pretending to be happy whilst doing their sketches, play-through or commentary on the site. He argues that forced positivity creates the wrong impression for a large number of young viewers. Life is not always perfectly happy, and YouTubers are often giving them a distorted view of life.
“I don’t think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I don’t think being happy all the time is something desirable at all.”
Not that he keeps himself away from the blame for this. “I faked it. I thought that for people to want to watch my videos I would have to be happy. I would have to force positivity.” With 52m subscribers to his channel, he admits this had a pay-off: he is the biggest YouTube star on the site. “It’s safe to say it worked,” he said.
Why I think PewdiePie is right
It’s fair to ask if a YouTube star (or a blogger like me) has anything legitimate to add to the mix. Well, friends, that’s where research on forced positivity comes in.
PewDiePie cites Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David. David, in speaking to the Washington Post, says that our so-called negative emotions are key to understanding what matters to us. She describes them as “beacons for our values”. Rather than languish in forced positivity, she says you should essentially pursue the things you value.
David is not alone in her research. Dr Brent Scott from Michigan State University also agrees with her about forced positivity. He says: “smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal.”
Funnily enough, he describes what PewDiePie felt during his attempts to drive forced positivity. PewDiePie said he relied on forced positivity for two years, and during that time he “felt crushed.”
Scott argues that rather than using forced positivty, it is much better to use “deep acting”. This is a short-term look at the more positive things in life. He does say, however, that this is a short-term solution. There’s a danger of feeling inauthentic if you rely on that alone.
The other side of the argument on forced positivity
I’d agree to some extent with Scott based on my own experience. We shouldn’t use a ‘sticking plaster’ to fix something much more serious. That said, I think its worth balancing out things that bother you which can’t be changed. Take our exercise yesterday as an example. Wouldn’t it be better to look forward to seeing your partner at the end of the day rather than dwelling on something negative someone said which you can do nothing about?
Harriet Lerner is a psychotherapist who takes what I say a little further. In fact, she says forced positivity can be a good thing. She says that sometimes “moping around can lead to more of the same.” She argues that “creative acts of pretending” can lead to new truths. She also cites that for some Buddhists, those leaders in all things meditation and transcendence, this is an intrinsic part of their practices.
That said, she seems to be in the minority on this. On the same site, Psychology Today, Rita Labeaune argues that this can lead to wearing a dangerous metaphorical mask:
With their mask on, everything looks great, even at times perfect. However, underneath the mask they are suffering from sadness, panic attacks, low self-esteem, insomnia, and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
Some final thoughts on forced positivity
It’s great that a YouTube star like PewDiePie is raising important issues in places we perhaps would not expect.
I’m no expert, just as PewDiePie is no expert. That said, I think we can safely say pretending that all is well creates problems for yourself, as well as problems for people around you.
If you want to dabble in forced positivity, then perhaps take a leaf from Lerner’s book. She describes it as an act of creativity. View it as a fun experiment, but then leave it at that. If it does you good then fine. Regardless, you still need to get in touch with your feelings.
I know that, for me, these feelings do indeed point me in the direction of my values. They also point me in the direction of things I need to change in my life.
Remember, our lives are varied. The terrain is ever shifting. You can’t feel good all of the time. Forced positivity is not a realistic option in such an environment. At least that seems to be what the experts are telling us.
There are times, I think, when we have to balance out the negative with the positive. That, at least, is something that works for me. However, after doing this there may still be issues you feel which are not resolved. What is reassuring is that for most of us this creates an exciting road-map to things we need to change. It also takes us deeper. It points us to values intrinsic and unique to us.
Always remember, however, these are my thoughts. I’m no expert. I’m just on a journey like you. If things are serious you should seek expert help. Stay safe out there.