Terrible, Thanks for Asking

What's Negative About Positivity? - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “What’s Negative About Positivity?” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, thanks for Asking.”

Some podcasts have a tagline that they repeat at the top of their show over and over. Something like Forever 35 — they say, “We’re not experts, we’re just —”

Doree Shafrir & Kate Spencer: — two friends who like to talk about serums on mini episodes. (And here we are.)

Who? Weekly —

Bobby Finger: — the podcast where you’ll learn everything you need to know about the celebrities you don’t.

This American Life... I can’t remember what they say, but you know what I mean.

Some podcasts just have a specific tagline for their show. And we do not. Because when I started, it just felt like a big commitment to tie it up with one specific sentence. And then every time I tried to do that, it kept changing. Because I knew that this was going to be a podcast where people could talk honestly about the hard things in life, but also it wasn’t always going to be a bummer. I knew that it would be a show that contained the multitudes of the human emotional experience. And that’s hard to sum up and make sound catchy.

But lately, I’ve been noticing that this podcast is a big part of a personal crusade against toxic positivity. This idea that we have to be POSITIVE! That the only vibes allowed are good vibes, when sometimes, the vibes are actually quite bad. At this podcast, it’s not bad vibes ONLY, but we believe in a healthy mix of vibes. And so sometimes the vibes are bad and sometimes the vibes are okay.

And that is what makes today’s guest so special to me. Because before there was “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” there was a lone woman fighting the crusade against toxic positivity. A woman who was out there fighting for the legitimacy of our human emotions. 

Her name is Susan David. Her weapons are research, a Ph.D. and an amazing accent.

Susan: No, I think that’s beautiful. And I think that actually this conversation is a... I mean, we can go right into it. 

That accent comes from South Africa, which is where Susan grew up. Now, she lives outside of Boston, because she works at Harvard Medical School. Susan has been saying for her entire career that we need to quit pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t. That we need to stop suppressing the truth to maintain the illusion of happiness, or to simply preserve the comfort of other people. In other words, toxic positivity can go to heck. 

Susan: But really, if we think about toxic positivity in its most salient form, what is it? It's an avoidant coping strategy. It's avoidance. When you are either telling other people just to be positive, you are basically saying to them, “My comfort is more important than your reality.” And we are also saying to them, “There is no space for your humanness here.”

But here at this podcast, there is space for your humanness. And we’ll start with Susan’s humanness, because she’s not just an expert living alone on Expert Island. She’s a person. And she experienced the effects of toxic positivity in a very extreme way when she was just 15.

Susan: My father, who was dying of cancer, was somehow… in a very vulnerable position. And he was somehow persuaded by many people around him that having life insurance — and this is gonna sound extreme — was a sign that he wasn't positive and that he didn't have enough faith.

The fact was that Susan’s father had terminal cancer — the end was evident. But death, grief, sadness? All the natural feelings that surround impending death? Those were categorized by some of the people around him as bad feelings. 

Susan: I remember coming into my father's room one day, and he was sobbing. And he was sobbing because people from his church had basically given him a speaking down for not having enough faith, and that he was bringing this thing on himself. And of course, he was vulnerable, and he should have known better. All those things. But when you are desperate, you are desperate.

So with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, with three young kids and a wife, Susan’s father did the only thing in his morphine-induced fogginess and desperation that he could do to prove that he had enough faith that God would take care of him. He cancelled his life insurance. 

When he died, Susan, her siblings, and their mother were left with nothing… and with a whole lot of grief.

Susan: And I recall in the days after he died going to school and really putting on this face, this brave face of, you know, I'm okay. And, you know, I became the master of being okay. People praised me for being strong. They lauded me for not dropping my grades. But, you know, in truth, at home, we were struggling. My mother had lost truly the love of her life. My father hadn't been able to keep his business going, and so we were really in financial dire straits. And I started as a young child to really numb this pain again through this denial. And one day I recall this absolutely remarkable English teacher who handed out these blank notebooks to the class. And she had this invitation, and it was an invitation to the class, but it felt like it was directed at me. She said, “Write. Tell the truth. Write like, no one is reading.

A lot of things happened as Susan began to write like nobody was reading. The performance of “fine” didn’t exist on the page. She could move beyond what she thought was expected of her as a grieving daughter, as a good student, and get into the truth. 

Susan: You know, we have so many narratives in society about what grief should be. People say things like, you know, “It's all for the best.” And there's all of these ways that we try to almost conspire against the reality of people's authentic experience. And so for me, “write like no one is reading,” and write what I feel, was really an invitation to move into the space of regret. You know, I regretted the times that I hadn't spent with my father. I was experiencing huge amounts of psychological pain. But I was also starting to remember the times that I was connected with and grateful for. 

And I think that's really what shaped my work. This recognition that on the one hand, we have this rigid denial around so many of our human emotions. And on the other, that when we go to these emotions, that we can actually grow in such incredible ways from them. What I realized for myself is that at first it just became a almost mechanism of venting. You know, just pouring my heart down. But what I realized over time is that I started to develop a greater sense of insight and learning and understanding about myself. And that's what actually ended up shaping my entire career. This core question that I ask in my work, which is: “What does it take internally in the way we deal with our thoughts and emotions and our stories that are healthy and that help us to thrive as human beings in a complex world?”

People are often surprised that Susan is a happy person who talks about unhappy things. And I do get the same thing. Yes, if you look at the titles of all my work, you might think I’m a one woman bummer parade, but it does surprise people sometimes that I’m actually a pretty happy person in general. Not positive, and not always happy, but happyish. I’m kind of goofy. I like to laugh. I can repeat the scripts of terrible ‘90s comedies nearly word for word. I’m not anti-happiness, and neither is this show. Neither is Susan. We love happiness. We love when the vibes are good. And we recognize when the vibes are bad. That’s the whole point! 

The pressure to make lemonade puts an unreasonable expectation on us as humans. It perpetuates a narrative that says, “it’s all in your head,” or at least all in your control. And it is not. 

America is a country where millions of people do not have the capacity to save $400 for an emergency. America is a country where we do not have paid bereavement or parental leave, where social safety nets are flimsy and unreliable and mental health is a buzzword but good luck having your insurer cover any of it! I speak from personal experience. America is a place where the things that don’t kill you can leave you emotionally, spiritually and financially bankrupt.

If we don’t acknowledge that, if we don’t leave space for the reality of the hard things in life, we slip very easily into toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is the denial or suppression of emotions considered “negative” — emotions that are painful. 

Susan: We are basically gaslighting ourselves. And why is this a problem? It's a problem because firstly, we aren't then developing skills around difficult emotions. But it actually goes beyond that. If we think about our most difficult emotions, our emotions aren't just there to be tolerated. Our emotions actually signpost something that's extraordinarily valuable for us as human beings. And that is emotions signpost our values. If you feel rage when you watch the news, that rage might be a signpost that you value equity and fairness, and that there's not enough of that in your life right now, or that you need to take more steps towards that.

Let’s say that again. Our emotions are telling us what we value. They are SIGNPOSTING our values to us. They are telling us what we need to pay attention to. Our emotions are data, not directives. So let’s say you feel guilty as a parent.

Susan: But that guilt might be signposting to you, “Yes. I'm with my kids 24/7 right now, but I don't feel this enough of a meaningful connection with them.” And that guilt might be signposting that presence and connection are really important right now. Even if we go to an example that can feel fairly inane, you know, the sense of boredom that one might have at work, that boredom might be a signpost that you value learning and growth, and that you don't have enough of it right now. 

Now, when you take this to its extreme, in a more individual level, you find — and I've seen this time and time again in my work — someone who says something like, “I'm bored in my job, but at least I've got a job.” And they talk themselves out of it. Five years later, they're still bored in their job. But now they've lost five years. And it’s not that they would just throw in the towel then and there. But if you showed up to that difficult emotion, you might start thinking about, “How do I tweak my current circumstance? What are some skills that I want to be growing? What interactions could I be having with people that would enable me to feel less bored?”

So when we show up to our difficult emotions, and when we try to recognize the value that's being signposted by them, this is what helps us to be adaptive human beings. And this is one of the reasons that Charles Darwin described emotions as being functional, that every single one of our emotions has a function.

And that is why toxic positivity is so toxic. Because a focus on positivity disconnects us from what our feelings are trying to tell us. It disconnects us from what we value and puts our focus on the performance of happiness. It tells us that the most important thing we can be is positive… mind over matter… law of attraction.

Susan: These narratives are interwoven into every aspect of our society, into our parenting, our organizations, and even the way we have conversations politically. So the idea basically is that emotions are either good or bad, they are positive or negative. And so usually what gets grouped into the so-called bad or negative emotions are things that feel difficult, things that feel uncomfortable. Grief, anger, sadness, anxiety, stress, the things that are interwoven into the so-called good or positive are the emotions like happiness and joy. 

So, how DO we thrive as human beings in a complex world? We will get into it, after this little break from the advertisers who make this show possible.

We’re back with psychologist Susan David about the importance of feeling and working through ALL of our feelings, not just the good ones. And all I could think during our very long interview was, HOW DID WE GET HERE? How did we as a culture get to a place where the default setting is POSITIVITY or GOOD VIBES ONLY?

Nora: My parents were baby boomers. So they were raised by the quote unquote Greatest Generation, which I think we need to revisit, because what were they great at, if not suppressing emotion, denying it entirely and raising an entire generation of kids who, like, are emotionally stifled at best and severely mentally ill at worse? You know, they did the best with what they had. So did their parents. But I do wonder, like, at what point did the normal spectrum of human emotions become so unacceptable? And I have a theory that I'd like to throw by you. It's Dale Carnegie's fault. 

Susan: [laughs] Can I suggest that I think maybe Dale has something to do with it. But a little bit beyond that. I mean, it's really fascinating. I once did a little bit of research looking into this idea, which is a few hundred years old, which is that when we start thinking about gendered ideas of emotion, that what you have is you have formal education, math and science, the stuff that's easily taught, being open historically to males. And so what you then have is the counter to that, which is that the stuff that feels more difficult to measure, feels a little bit more intangible, becomes associated with females.

And so you have this dichotomy that gets built over time, which is male equals logic, female equals emotion. And when you bind that into systemic discrimination against woman, what you start having is these pervasive narratives that basically then bucket in emotions as being soft skills, warm and fluffy, difficult, unimportant and so on. So there's one historical sociological view around that.

Another view is when we look at the history of psychology, and you start seeing behaviorism come through in psychology, and behavior of behaviorism is basically this idea that, you know, if you give the dog something and he wags his tail twice, then you are seeing a behavior, stimulus and response, and you can measure it. So behaviorism really starts proposing that only if you can measure it does it matter. Because emotions have been difficult to measure, they have been relegated in psychology as being therefore unimportant. 

To the extent that when I was doing my Ph.D. on this topic, it was really difficult for me to find an adviser, even in the psychology department, who would support me doing a Ph.D. on emotions. The idea that emotions were functional was not something that was part of the way emotions were being thought of. 

You know, even cognitive therapy is about your thoughts. Your thoughts cause your emotions. But we also know that emotions can cause thoughts. But emotions were relegated to this byproduct or end product of the way we understood psychology as opposed to the things that actually shape and are critical in shaping our responses. 

Earlier we talked about how our feelings signpost our values. They’re telling us something about ourselves. But the significance of our emotions is not just limited to how they affect us but how we affect each other.

Susan: Internal pain always comes out, always, you know, and who pays the price? We do. Our communities pay the price. The climate and our earth is paying the price because what is the price here? The price is the price of denial. The price is the price of not saying, “What are the difficult conversations and what are the difficult actions that we need to take?” And so this is where, you know, toxic positivity is not just something that we want to get off and away from, you know, in terms of social media. There are real costs to this.

Another way that we see this is in individuals where people start to try to numb their emotional experience. And when you try to numb the difficult emotional experience, you also numb your capacity for joy and for the full-rounded emotional experience. And so, you know, I've often in my work had people saying things to me like, “I don't want to be stressed. I don't want to experience grief. You know, I don't want to be disappointed. Yes. You know, I want to start that new career, that new job. But I don't want to be disappointed.” But if we think about it, these are actually “dead people goals” in a way. You know, dead people never experience stress. Dead people never experience discomfort. if you want to have a life and love and raise a family and leave the world a better place and move into situations of intimacy, with that comes vulnerability and potential loss. And so discomfort is actually the price of admission to a meaningful life. Being able to hold both the, you know, so-called positive emotions and the difficult emotions side by side are what actually create far greater levels of meaning in our life. 

These levels of meaning are about curiosity. Susan had an example that I loved. Sometimes when we’re experiencing sadness, or anger, or grief, it appears as a cloud. And the cloud is so dense that we start to think we ARE the cloud. When really, we’re the sky. The cloud is passing through. Yeah, it’s there, yes. We see it, we feel it. But WE are the constant. WE are the sky. 

It’s knowing that how we feel NOW is not how we will always feel. Which some people might call resilience but Susan calls emotional agility… which honestly, I like a lot better.

Susan: I think when we explore traditional notions of resilience, it's really this idea of bouncing back. You know, so something happens and then you bounce back from that thing. I don't see emotional agility is just synonymous with resilience. Emotional agility is a practice. It's a way of being with ourselves that isn't just responding or reacting to something that's happened, but it's a way that we are with ourselves that’s calm and centered, that brings a level of wisdom and compassion to all ways that we are. And yes, that might make us more resilient, but it also might make us and does make us, in fact, more adaptable, more able to take risks, more able to live life with open arms. 

I often think about this example, which is: Imagine you go into a restaurant and there's a little child there, you know, 18 months old, toddling around the restaurant. And there's something very beautiful that you can notice in the way a child explores. So they take a couple of steps forward, and then they look around at their parents, or their caregivers, and they giggle, giggle, giggle. And what do they then do? They run away a little bit more, and they turn around gleefully. They look back, make sure my parent’s, my caregiver’s there, and then they explore more. And in psychological terms, we call this a secure base. The secure base is this idea that the child knows that if something goes wrong, that they are going to have a person to run back to who's going to hold them and protect them. And it's the very essence of the secure base that then allows the child to explore and to take risks and to learn.

Now, if we think about that same idea applied internally: When you push aside your difficult emotions, when you punish yourself for having them, when you gaslight yourself, you are doing secure base. You are narrowing yourself, and you are losing your capacity to be effective in the world. If, on the other hand, you adopt more of the skills of emotional agility, which is, “Gee, this is tough, I’m being kind to myself and loving myself, I'm showing up to myself, I’m labeling what my emotions are. I'm looking for the values in that.” Then what you're doing is you're creating the equivalent of a secure base for yourself, and it's in that secure base that you are able to take risks and learn and love and be. And that's way beyond resilience.

Nora: In a culture where we are… there is not a lot of space for emotion or emotion is considered unprofessional, or emotions are private, or... how can we be better at understanding what our emotions are trying to communicate to us, and how can we help make that space for other people?

Susan: Such an important question. Well, the first is as an individual, if you hear yourself saying “I shouldn't feel,” I shouldn't feel this, I shouldn't feel that. See if you can just instead face into that experience that you’re having with gentle acceptance. And what I mean by gentle acceptance is that, you know, right now things are tough. Yeah. We are in the shadow of illness and death and an extraordinarily difficult economic situation that people are facing into. And there is such power in just acknowledging that what you are feeling is tough. So the first part of being more emotionally agile is showing up to your own experience with gentle acceptance. 

That acceptance means not becoming the feeling. It also means not categorizing the feeling, not assigning it a value. Which is hard to do, because as humans we love to categorize things. We love to be able to say things are GOOD or BAD. The #1 show on Netflix right now is a home organizing show. Okay? We like to sort things into very neat piles. Piles are soothing. I’m sitting in a closet where my clothes are color-coded. That is soothing. But what Susan is saying is doing that with feelings is not helping us! It’s an oversimplification that is doing the opposite of helping us. 

Susan: Along with these, you know, “emotions are good or bad” narratives then becomes a lack of emotional literacy that we often have when it comes to emotions. So very often in my work, what I found is people will use a big label to describe their emotions. You know, “I'm stressed” is a very common one. Everything is I'm stressed, I'm stressed, I'm stressed. But if we think about it, there's a world of difference between stress and... I’m disappointed, stressed, and that knowing, gnawing feeling of I'm in the wrong job or the wrong career. Stressed, and… I am depleted. 

So the first aspect, or a very practical way of developing emotional agility, is to go beyond an umbrella term for what it is you're experiencing and try to get more granular. Like, what one or two other options besides stress that you are feeling. And you can see that when do this, it's really powerful. If you say, “The thing that I'm feeling is not stress, it's exhaustion,” already that allows you to understand the cause of that emotion and what it is that you need to do in response to that emotion. And so simply labeling emotions more accurately is called emotion granularity, and the psychological research is very powerful. 

Another strategy that's really important is don't define yourself by your emotion. When you say, “I am sad, I am angry.” Think about what we’re saying. We’re saying, “I am, all of me, 100 percent of me, there is no space for anything else. All of me is this emotion.” So we are completely conflated with our emotion.

But you are not your emotions. You are you. You are capacious enough to experience a full range of emotions. And you are also your intentions, your values, your breathing, your relationships, who you want to be in the world. 

So if instead of saying, “I am sad,” we can start saying, “I'm noticing that I'm feeling sad. I'm noticing that this is my ‘I'm not good enough’ thought.” So we’re starting to label our emotions, our thoughts and stories for what they are: emotions, thoughts and stories. They are not fact. Then you create really important space.

I'm going way beyond here talking about the idea that, oh, we've just got to bear difficult emotions. What I'm actually speaking to is the idea that our emotions signal our values, that values are often thought of as these abstract ideas. How do I determine what my values are? Well, one of the best ways that we can do this is by saying, “What is it that I'm feeling and what is this feeling telling me might be important to me right now?”

Well, that sounds nice! That sounds valuable. And we’ll get into that a little bit, right after the break.

We’re back. 

Have you ever had your emotions just kinda take over? Like, something happens… you’re at work and someone is kind of a jerk to you, and you feel a big WHOOSH of anger and insecurity… and then it just kind of takes over. And suddenly, your whole day or week or month is just… consumed by this act of jerkiness? That is what Susan calls being hooked. 

Susan: We are having normal thoughts, emotions and stories, and we are letting them drive our actions. When we are unhooked, we are having normal thoughts, emotions and stories. We’re being compassionate towards those. And we are choosing to make values connected, movements forward. And that's in essence what it is. 

You know, all of the stuff about, “You only need to think positive things.” No. You know, we have around sixteen thousand spoken thoughts every day and many more thousand course through our minds about who we are. Are we good, are we not good? Who are we as people, you know, what do we deserve? And again, these are normal. It's completely normal to have these. We don't talk about them being normal, because our narrative is this narrative that somehow if you have a bad thought, you're going to create a bad future. And you know, the opposite of that is, “If I have a good thought, if I dream about a wonderful car that I want somehow that car will manifest—”

Nora: Manifesting. I’m gonna snap, Susan. I’m gonna snap at manifesters. I’m gonna lose my mind. I'm like, maybe you manifested it, or maybe you come from privilege. 

There’s a whole sort of New-Agey view around this kind of manifestation. It was  popularized by The Secret — a book that encouraged people to live by the Law of Attraction — which is not a law. It’s a notion that the universe is going to send you what you want to attract. So if you want good things, you should think good things. So obviously don’t think about cancer! Don’t think about bad things, you’re going to attract them! Are you thinking about cancer now? Good luck.

And nice thought sound nice. What could be wrong with just thinking about good things for yourself? But it’s also another way of getting hooked. And being hooked by that kind of toxic positivity can be just as bad as being hooked by anger. I’ll let Susan explain that.

Susan: Being hooked by toxic positivity is just as bad as being hooked by anger, because in both of those cases, it's the emotions that are driving us rather than our values, rather than who we want to be in the world. And we are more than our emotions. You know, we own our emotions. They don't own us. So first is the idea that, you know, often we feel like, “I'm getting caught off guard. You know, suddenly lashed out at my husband and I'm getting caught off guard. I don't know where these emotions are coming from.” Often when we think we've been caught off guard by our emotions, it's because we are living life in our heads and we're not actually connecting with our own hearts. We aren't hearing our needs. You know, if we close our eyes and we imagine that there is a child inside of all of us, a little 5- year-old or a 6-year-old, saying, see me, you know, love me, help me. That child needs something right now. That child might need joy. That child might need rest. There's something that the child needs.

We often live in the place of logic and judgment and criticism. You know, again, that's our brains doing the job it was meant to do. So what we’re needing to do is be more centered in our breathing and in our wisdom. And what does that look like practically? It means giving space sometimes, even just in a minute in a day, to say what does the child in me need? When I'm going into a difficult cold or a difficult conversation doing something as simple as holding my hand up to my heart. What is that doing? We are all, as human beings, very responsive to touch. But when we run through our day, we often aren't connecting with that other part of ourselves. And so when I go into a difficult conversation and I'm just holding my hand to my heart, it's grounding me, and it's grounding me in the me, the wise part of me, rather than the logical judging part of me. We do this, for instance, when physicians are going to give really bad news to a patient's family. We ask them to hold their hand up to their chest or to remind themselves of their feet on the ground. The groundedness that we can all find. So I think it's really important for us to find those little moments of compassion and of groundedness.

I cannot say this enough — it’s the basis of this entire podcast — SOMETIMES LIFE IS JUST HARD. That’s it! Sometimes the silver lining isn’t there. Hard things are hard. Sad things are sad. That’s okay! 

Susan: It’s really important not to bypass difficulty. Again, we don't want to get stuck in it, but it's really important not to bypass difficulty — to set ourselves, what is this emotion telling me I need more of right now? To try to understand what it is that our emotions are asking for. 

If a listener says, “Okay, well, I'm feeling this or I’m feeling that.” Imagine you've got a piece of paper. And on the one side of the paper, you write the feeling: anxious, exhausted, depleted, grieving, sad. And then you turn over that imaginary piece of paper. Most people would say, “Oh, write something positive.” No, you can already hear that I'm not going to that. On the other side of the piece paper, write down what it is that that emotion is signposting that you need. Loneliness might be signposting that you need greater levels of intimacy, that you might be living 24/7 with your family but that actually you are still lonely, because we can be lonely in a crowd. Grief might be signposting, again, that I need to sit with that yearning for the person. So if we can do more of that with ourselves, we are then able to bring ourselves as more wholehearted, grounded people into all of the interactions that we’re having in a day to day way.

Often people will say things like, “Oh, you know, I had a fight with my husband and it came out of the blue.” But no, you know, if we think about the fights that we have with a husband, usually they are patterned fights. Usually we've been having the same fight for the past 20 years. And it might not be with a husband. It might be a fight that we’re having with ourselves about whether we matter, about whether we’re seen, about our needs, the fights that we are having. And so when we hook into the emotion, we often then have that fight in a destructive way. But when we step back and say, “What is the value that is being signaled here?” this is really powerful.  

Our minds were made to judge, criticize, compare, shape, assess. That is our mind doing its job. Your mind will lead you off a cliff. We've got to be able to be centered more into other parts of ourselves. And yes, it takes practice. Yes, it takes practice to say, “Gee, this is what I'm feeling, and I’m not going to gaslight myself and try to do positive affirmations and pretend the thing I feel is not something that I feel. Rather, I'm going to show up to that and I'm going to learn from it.”

And you know, what's really interesting is this... there’s substantive research supporting what I am describing. You know, for instance, there's a really fascinating body of research showing that when people have a goal to be happy. I want to be happy, I want to be happy. I want to be happy. I want to be happy. That those people become less and less happy over time, because happiness is not borne out of chasing some happy goal. Happiness is borne out of living life in ways that feel concordant with what you value with your values. And if we can come closer to those and make choices that are more aligned with those, that's when we’re in the space of less likely to be hooked or less likely to, you know, turn round 20 years time and go, “Oh, my God, I was living someone else's life.”

After my interview with Susan — where I took about five pages of notes — I started to see more and more connections between the way toxic positivity shows up in our American culture. I see it in New Age spirituality. I see it in the self-improvement space.

I talked about this on a previous episode. There is a documentary on HBO called “The Vow.” It’s a docu-series about NXIVM. NXIVM was a multi-level-marketing company based in that nebulous world of self-improvement. And then it also kind of turned out to be… I don’t know if you can officially call it a cult. Cult-ish. And participants were lured in by this idea of leading a “big life” and told they needed to get rid of “limiting beliefs.” Over and over, members and teachers in this docu-series were talking about aspiring to joy not as just this occasional experience but as a constant state of existence. And strangely enough, it seemed impossible for them to achieve that, no matter how many thousands of dollars they spent on more and more courses in pursuit of… what, exactly? The pursuit of happiness? 

Susan: Happiness is borne out of not chasing a narrative but rather being grounded in yourself with all of the complexity of that. When I say I'm not anti-happiness, I'm deeply interested in what it is that makes humans authentically happy. And what makes humans authentically happy is not chasing happiness as a goal. 

Imagine you are someone who lives in a community where you are not well-served by public transport. And so in order to have a livable wage, you have to commute, you know, two hours into work and two hours back from work every single day. You do this, you know, week after week, and the weeks go into months and the months go into years. Would that experience impact on your well-being? Yes, absolutely. Yes. Now, what happens when that individual has this narrative that, again, is persuasive and pervasive that says, “Oh, your happiness is simply just a function of thinking, positive thoughts, manifesting your own reality. And by the way, if you've got any problems in your life, it's because you aren't positive enough.” 

You know, what does that really do? That abrogates our societal responsibility to recognize that our social policies can and do impact on people's well-being. And the simple idea, this convenient narrative, that if people are unhappy, it's simply because they're not being happy enough and it’s therefore their fault, is a travesty. It's a travesty. 

It is natural for us to want to be happy people, to be good people. We don’t want grief or suffering to have the last word, but we do need it to have a say.

Like Susan said, the pain comes out eventually. The hurt comes out eventually.  

We’ve watched hundreds of years of pain come out in America this year. We’ve seen powerful actions come from people recognizing the validity of their emotions, from people recognizing the alignment of their emotions with their values. This year is not Good Vibes Only. This year, and so many others before it, have been about the recognition of a reality that is often painful and difficult and unjust. 

There is no amount of positive thinking, no amount of good vibes, no amount of denial that can keep that kind of pain contained. 

Susan: Society is begging us to become whole person, to become open to the whole of us, to all of us. And if we don't do that, if we raise our children to only be happy, or if we tell our boys not to cry, we are literally incapacitating a generation.


This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

I’m Nora McInerny. Our producer is Marcel Malekebu. Our project manager is Hannah Meacock Ross. Our editor is Phyllis Fletcher. We love her. She’s so smart.

You can find more of Susan’s work at SusanDavid.com. I highly recommend that everyone read Emotional Agility. I am reading it, re-rereading it, dog-earring it, highlighting it, and I wanna talk to everyone about it, so maybe we’ll do a book club or something. I don’t know.

Production help from Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. She’s back. We love her. We missed her. Our digital producer is Jordan Turgeon. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson.

We are a production of APM, American Public Media.