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Staying positive is a project during Covid-19 crisis Filed on August 25, 2020

The pandemic has reminded us of our finitude. It has possibly also altered our inner worlds

A few days ago, I found my name listed in an online talk on positive thinking. Useful, I thought, but why me? Sure, the pandemic has turned our lives upside down, snatched every ounce of stability from us and given us a 'new normal' we hadn't hoped for. But a rising (and perhaps well-intentioned) dialogue on positive thinking during these uncertain times has also tutored us to believe in the silver linings and presenting the best version of ourselves to the world, even as our inner worlds are crumbling. I took well to the tutoring. Or so I thought, even if the calm exuded also cloaked the anxiety within.

Thirty minutes into the talk, and the boundaries of positivity had already chalked out. Spot the silver lining; get rid of negative language in your daily conversation ("starting a sentence with a 'but' is a no-no"); when anxiety hits the roof, de-escalate; fall back on your reserves of optimism and resilience to get through a problem. Yes, these are useful suggestions to help get through an unpredictable time. Negative thinking can become a pattern and it is only important to identify how your mind plays games with you. However, glossing over feelings of anxiety and grief to see a 'light at the end of the tunnel' also does not help us in reconciling with our more complex emotions. An outright rejection of unhappiness that comes with platitudes such as 'Everything will be just fine' or 'Don't worry, be happy' could also undermine how we truly feel.

In a world where we are constantly crafting an image of ourselves to suit our social media feeds, happiness can become a project. It surely feels like one, especially during a pandemic that has seen thousands of people across the world dying due to the coronavirus, or losing jobs owing to its economic fallout, or the social distancing norms that have denied us the joy of engaging with people more intimately. If there is a silver lining, it is a promise of that vaccine that will grant us immunity against the deadly virus. Until such time, how do we reach that place of contentment that self-help and mindfulness advocates want us to? How do we come to terms with the arbitrariness of our lives in this 'new normal'?

Positive thinking is not an alarm bell that ought to be set - and reset - in our systems every day. It is a way of looking at life. But when optimism does not come naturally and one is counselled to overlook the negative emotions to focus on the 'brighter side', the well-intentioned advice puts our emotions on a fast-forward mode. Mental health experts and researchers are more wary of such emphasis on positive thinking in the light of the pandemic. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Boston-based clinical psychologist Natalie Dattilo warns against such 'toxic positivity'. "While cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism, toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or the only way to cope with a bad situation is to out a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative," she writes. "It results from our tendency to undervalue negative emotional experiences and overvalue positive ones." 

There is considerable truth in that claim. In simply papering over our grief, panic, and anxiety, we also condition our minds to not reconcile with more difficult emotions, or even understand them. One of the most heartbreaking moments during the pandemic has been to see people losing their loved ones while they were in lockdown in another countries and bade farewell to them virtually. How does such a person, dealing with an unexpected loss and physically absent during the last rites, come to terms with his or her sense of loss? It takes something far deeper than a simple platitude to help such a person heal. 

The pandemic has reminded us of our finitude. It has possibly also altered our inner worlds. Our feelings - however grave or trivial to others- are, in the end, real to us. Instead of muting these inner voices, we could heal better if we learnt to live with them. 


Anamika Chatterjee

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