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Negative is the New Positive: Part I

I knew if I just hung on long enough, the world would eventually come round. After all these years of being abused and shamed for my so-called negativity, it’s suddenly becoming chic.

The first time I recall being chided for negativity was by a friend on a snowy mountain in Vermont during a high school senior ski trip. We were standing—or trying to stand–on a fairly steep hill while the instructor demonstrated how to walk sideways uphill on skis. Despite 20 layers of wool, I was shivering in the below-ten degree cold. When I grumbled, my friend called me  a “complainer.”

Complainer?” I thought. “Complainer? I’m fighting not to fall on my head onto ice and snow in zero degrees—what else would I do?” Complaining seemed a perfectly logical response to the circumstances. It’s been like that ever since. What I think is a normal response to circumstances others take for negativity, hopelessness–a psychologial problem requiring intensive therapy. Actually, the criticisms weren’t all that frequent—I did, after all, live in New York (the aforementioned ‘friend’ was from Ohio) for the first forty years of my life, where grumpiness is next to godliness.

Then I moved to California.

Through the eyes of Californians I learned new things about myself:  I’m extremely honest and direct. I have a pronounced accent. I’m more visibly Jewish than I knew. And I am horribly, terribly, hopelessly negative–a major obstacle to success or friendship, considering that in California being positive is a religion. It really is: whole cults and therapeutic systems out here revolve around the idea of having a good day. Just as I suddenly longed for Jewish people, Jewish food, the whole Jewish NY vibe, I also became more negative. I’m a natural rebel—if everyone’s doing something, I’m bound to do the opposite. Why else would I still be smoking cigarettes?

The New Trend

Bright Sided coverAh, but suddenly things are changing. In the past few months several books have appeared whose basic premise is that being positive can be harmful to your health. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking HasUndermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is a response to the cheerful pink cult surrounding breast cancer. You know: all those pink ribbons and pink boxes of candy and pink cards with happy faces—pink is as ubiquitous around breast cancer as any character from whatever kids’ movie is popular at the moment; right now it’s The Wild Things. Just as you can find wild things on every notebook and lunchbox, so too can you buy anything female done up in pink or festooned with pink ribbons for your favorite breast cancer survivor (not victim or even patient, but survivor, dammit!).

Ehrenreich, who’s written gritty exposés of women’s lives and labor, and other takes on reality, isn’t the type to wear rose-colored glasses. “In the most extreme characterization,” she writes, “breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance—it is a ‘gift,’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.” Unlike me, Ehrenreich isn’t exactly “negative,” but a realist who insists we look at life as it is. In fact, I think that’s how I started out, becoming more and more grumpy over the years out of frustration with the taboo on expressing reality. All those “have a nice day”s and the bestowal of kind blessings, not to mention being told it was my own fault my life sucked, and that it would continue to suck if I kept being negative…well, it all pissed me off, and I went overboard in the opposite direction.

Other indications that negativity is becoming more acceptable is a recent study, bluebird coveryes, an honest to god scientific study on grumpiness. In Part II of this rant I’ll talk about it, and also about Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, another remarkable reality-based book by Ariel Gore.

Part II is now available here.


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