Can a relentless pressure to be 'happy' actually do harm?

Well Dr Octavia Calder-Dawe thinks so. She is starting out on a study to determine whether young women experience the everyday pressure to surmount life's challenges by being upbeat. I was interviewed for this article on her research. As you’ll see, I’m in complete agreement that ‘burying’ our feelings and being asked to gloss over them with positivity makes no sense and can be pretty harmful. On the other hand, there are ways to train the brain for positive change.

You can read the Stuff article here, and I've also reproduced the full text below in case the content is ever taken down from the website.

Relentless pressure to be happy may do more harm, researcher claims

By Amy Baker - for

From carefully curated social media posts, to advertising, self-help books and inspiring listicles, the pressure to be positive today is unprecedented, an academic claims.

Massey University research officer Dr Octavia Calder-Dawe is setting out to study how young women experience the everyday pressure to surmount life's challenges by being upbeat. 

"There's an emphasis on positive thinking and transforming the way you think, doing more work on yourself psychologically, so things improve, rather than looking at the social conditions that you might be in and perhaps transforming those."

Optimism was important, but presenting it as a panacea could place undue burden on individuals and detract from larger societal issues, Calder-Dawe said. 

Businesses and governments were also increasingly focused on people's positivity, with the introduction of measures such as Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index and the World Happiness Index.

Octavia Calder-Dawe said the push to be positive often discounted people's social environments.

Entitled "Relentlessly Positive", Calder-Dawe's research will take three years and was recently awarded Marsden Funding of $300,000. 

The first part of the study will look at three groups of women, aged between 18 and 35, and their experience of "positivity imperatives" in their everyday lives, as hospitality workers, mothers of young children and social media influencers.

Due to their social roles, the women were likely to have experienced "particularly sharp" pressure to appear outwardly upbeat, Calder-Dawe said.

Part two will focus on a smaller group, and how their daily experiences are reflected on social media platforms, such as Instagram. 

It's a terrain that social media influencer and eco-activist Kate Hall knows well, from both cultivating her own brand and looking to others for online inspiration.

Hall said while there was definitely pressure to present a perfectly curated life, the tide was slowly turning on the days when people had to show only their best selves online.

Social media influencer Kate Hall said she thought social media had become a bit more real.

"As social media evolves, there's a lot more reality and negative and raw people really succeeding in their growth as influencers."

However, content that was deemed too negative, intense or sensitive tended to turn people off from engaging, she said. 

Registered psychologist Nadine Isler said encouraging blind positivity could be a problem, particularly when it required people to bottle up their emotions.

"If you've got something going on, you need to be able to honour that experience," she said. 

"You need to be able to say, 'This is real, this is what I'm feeling about it', and you need to be able to validate how you're feeling."

However, Isler said in her own practice, reframing tools could help people to make changes in their thinking when needed, which was different from "pretending everything was fine".

According to the Ministry of Healthy's 2017 New Zealand Health Survey, one in five Kiwis will experience mental illness and/or addiction each year.

We're surrounded by many everyday messages, through books and online media, to be positive.

We're surrounded by many everyday messages, through books and online media, to be positive.