Why we need the positive side of life

Updated: Jan 4, 2019

Every debate has its own vocabulary (or spin). This is also true for the long overdue debate about mental health, thanks to awareness campaigns like the Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. The media, individuals and employers started talking about mental health openly, thus lifting the stigma associated with the topic.

Understanding what we actually mean is important if we want to avoid misunderstandings or a kind of double-think in a conversation. In the case of mental health awareness, the flexibility of language has been put to good use by giving it a positive spin. Because when we talk about a “mental health problem”, what we often really mean is mental illness.

The title Surviving or thriving? of the latest UK Mental Health Report hints already that we are potentially looking at matters more serious than just “feeling a bit low” today. Instead of talking about mental illness, this, and many news reports on the topic, talked about good or poor mental health. Choosing this wording may have contributed substantially to reducing resistance to the topic. For a start, it sounds a lot less scary than mental illness.

Two different things

But it may also have created a new problem that turns the scientific use of language on its head. Decades of scientific literature have established mental health and mental illness as separate constructs, most famously by Corey Keyes in his 2002 paper The Mental Health Continuum. He argued that while the two are highly correlated, less mental illness “will not necessarily result in more mentally healthy individuals”.

The two parts of mental health – the good and the bad, the positive and the negative – don’t necessarily run on a continuous scale either. So when we look at how we have viewed mental health over the decades, we see a development that looks something like this:

It could be argued that scales like these oversimplify the matter, e.g. at which point turns mental illness into poor mental health. Could that be before zero? No doubt, there may be answers to questions like these already out there.

Working on the Positive

But what it also means is that bringing the positive side of the spectrum into your life doesn’t mean you have to first clear all the negative stuff. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden & Build Theory, there is an upward spiral connected with positive emotions. The more positive we feel – or the higher our subjective well-being in “technical” speak – the more resilient we become when dealing with the negative stuff life throws at us. And because positive and negative feelings can coexist, working on the positive doesn’t mean we have to blank out the negative. E.g. we can have a really bad day but there may still be happy moments dotted around – and that is fine! Because the positive helps us get through the bad stuff.

That’s why we need the positive side of life – it helps us out when we are feeling low and it may prevent us dropping too deep into the negative when things go wrong. Paying more attention to the things that make us smile is long overdue too – when did you last smile?