Keeping Mentally Fit: Advice from 1952 (!)

Vintage_Self_Help_

How I came across the video Keeping Mentally Fit I'm not quite sure — pretty sure it's a combination of my own YouTube content and Safiya Nygaard's decades videos — but when I first saw the video in my recommended feed, I naively expected it to be filled with such out-of-touch advice that it would be laughable to those interested in self-help today. While some of my 1950s-era expectations were certainly met (blatant racism, overt sexism, and a bizarre understanding of mental health treatment — 2 out of 40 high school graduates could expect to someday spend time in a mental institution???), I was surprised by how relevant the advice actually was. 

While advice for living well has been part of human culture for centuries, it's booming growth in the late 20th century (and my own personal and professional focus on it) often makes me forget that, though it may not have always been as popular of an industry, self-help advice isn't new. And looking back at what was advised in the past not only gives us insight into how previous eras viewed self-help, but it also provides an interesting perspective of evergreen tactics for living life well. 

This particular video focuses on four key elements for acquiring, maintaining, and improving mental health: expressing emotions naturally, respecting yourself, respecting others, and solving problems as they arise. While these tips seem simple and, perhaps, obvious, I think it's worth exploring each one a little bit because often it's the simple, timeless advice that's the most taken for granted. 

 

EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS

Expressing your emotions was not at all what I expected to hear when I first started watching the video. There's so much talk in today's culture about how we all need to open up more about mental health issues, how we need to talk about more how we feel, that I was honestly quite surprised to see this advice being heralded back in 1952. 

Most of us know that bottling up negative emotions is bad. We might also know that, when not expressed in a healthy way, bottled up emotions tend to come out in unexpected (and often unpleasant) ways. But this portion of the video also touched on how important it is to express positive emotions as well. It touched on facing and expressing not only feelings of pain, but also on sharing positive feelings, like love, as well. Additionally, it touched on expressing emotions with consideration for others, which is something we all can benefit from taking to heart. 

This segment also highlighted the important notion of talking about feelings with a professional or trusted friend. The more you talk about your problems (particularly with a professional), the easier they are to solve. Expressing emotions can be really tough sometimes, but it's one of the best pieces of self-help advice out there, even all of these decades later! 

 

RESPECT YOURSELF

Next up, the video dives into one of my personal favorite topics — self-love. While that specific term has only risen to popularity in recent decades, the concept has apparently been of value for some time in the self-help space. I was particularly pleased to see how the video addressed the topic of perfectionism. Aiming for perfection is a struggle for a lot of people and learning not to be so hard on yourself (remember: you're human!) is such a positive message to master. 

There's often a struggle between the need to improve (the underlying, guiding force of a self-help video) and the desire to respect the self as is. The video addresses this, reminding viewers that it's great if you want to improve, but that doesn't mean you can't accept (and respect!) yourself just as you are right now. 

As someone who has a very stereotypical idea of what life was like in the 1950s — perfect little families living in colorful houses behind white picket fences, a notion I know is not based on reality but I can't help but see in my head when I think of that decade — I was thrilled to see that the issue of perfectionism was tackled. No matter what the era (or the situation), no one's life is perfect and striving for perfection often gets in the way of lasting self-improvement. 

 

CULTIVATE POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS

In this segment of the film, the advice focused on getting along with others, having fun, and being part of the group. While this certainly isn't bad advice, it was a bit tricky for me to fully embrace in today's culture because I think we're realizing more and more that you don't have to have a large group of friends or fit in with the current trends to have a fulfilling, enjoyable life. Of course, surrounding yourself with positive people who enrich your life is always good advice but it's not always an easy thing to control, depending on one's circumstances and disposition. 

Today, I think we have a better understanding of the idea that different people crave different levels of social interaction. Joining a club, as recommended in the video, won't work for everyone. That being said, even if you're an introvert and prefer time spent alone, that doesn't mean you can't gain something positive from socializing (perhaps one-on-one if that's more your style). 

"There's no room for bashfulness in good mental health," something said in the video, isn't advice I'd agree with, but I do think the underlying point — that positive relationships have a big impact on mental health — rings true. Spending time with the right people is important for keeping mentally fit. 

Likewise, being a positive person in the lives of others is equally as important. As the video suggests, it's important not to expect others to be perfect, to let them go their own way sometimes, and to cultivate give-and-take in relationships. It's also important not to dislike or distrust people who are different from you (this point certainly wasn't showcased in the video — everyone looked pretty much the same! — but the words are just as important today as they were then). 

 

DON'T AVOID PROBLEMS

As someone who does a great deal of avoidance — I'm writing this post, in fact, because I sat down at my computer to do something that really needs to be done and instead of doing it, I've chosen to do this instead. Awesome. — I was so glad this was one of the four topics tackled in this video. Combatting a problem as soon as it comes up, rather than avoiding it as many of us are prone to do, is such obvious but important advice. 

The video reminds us that, when we avoid the things we don't want to do, the problem becomes three-fold: we worry about facing it for however long we're avoiding it; we deal with the struggle of actually conquering it; and we may fret over it after the fact, wondering if things might have been different had we handled it promptly.

Of course, depending on the problem, it's not always easy to face, but the video really made me think about what life would be like if, when a problem comes up, I chose to face it right away with the three words they mentioned in mind: calmly, reasonably, and honestly. It seems, at first glance, that it would be difficult to do, but is it really more difficult than avoiding the problem and still having to deal with it later? 

 

Though some of this mid-century advice might be a bit obvious, I'm glad I came across this video. It not only inspired me to pause and think about all four of these tips — each one really deserving of some attention — but it also opened my eyes to the fact that so much of what we talk about in the self-help space isn't new and, no matter what the decade, humans have always been working to improve their mental lives. 

What do you think of this advice and, if you watched it, the video? Let me know in the comments section below! 

 

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Wanting v. Having : 5 Ways to Embrace Desire


Positively Present - Wanting Having
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Materialism exists because we get excited about something, want to own it, get it, grow used to it (or even feel let down by it immediately after acquiring it), and then strive again for the "wanting" high by identifying a new thing to covet. The cycle can be endless, and even if you're aware of it, it can be tough to break because wanting something (and striving to make it yours) just feels so darn good sometimes. 

The problem is we often don't pay attention to where in that cycle of want-get-have-want that we actually feel good. Yes, getting a thing you've longed for can feel good to obtain momentarily, but frequently it doesn't feel as good as the actual desiring of it did. And we often (if not always!) return to our previous mental state after we've gotten used to possessing whatever it is we once wanted (see: hedonic treadmill).

Often this happens because the way we think about something we want is different from how we feel about it when we own it. Just think about the last time you got a new phone. The anticipation of it, with it's fresh screen and new features, was thrilling. And the first few days with it might have been exciting, too. But now, even if you use and enjoy it a lot, it's likely just something you own. 

The notion that more stuff won't bring you more happiness isn't anything new (and the rise in the minimalism trend keeps bringing it to the forefront in popular culture). Most of us know this (and some of us even put that idea into to practice by resisting the temptation to buy more and more things in pursuit of that short-lived high!), but we often don't focus on how this wanting vs. having idea applies to non-tangible things we're in pursuit of, things like love, status, wealth, success, etc. 

If you're in pursuit of anything at all, whether it be personal or professional, tangible or intangible, you, too, must face the fact that sometimes (and, in fact, often), the wanting of something is more enjoyable than the possession of it. Even if we experience this again and again — we find a great love, we get the job we desperately wanted, we achieve the goal we've worked on for years and yet still feel the need to desire something new or better or more important — it's hard not to keep pursuing more and more. 

The problem is, if we're always chasing after the next thing, we're rarely (if ever) content with where we are now, which makes it pretty difficult to live positively in the present. But how are we to counteract the desire for desire when it's built into our societies, when we're expected to constantly be seeking? Here are few ways we can embrace the ever-present desire to want what we don't yet have.

 

FOCUS ON EXPERIENCE, NOT POSSESSION

You've certainly heard this before: buy experiences, not things. But this concept need not apply only to material goods. It also applies to the intangible desires so many of us have. Experiencing something, whatever it might be, is often much more valuable than possessing it is. For example, rather than focusing the possession of a person (labeling a new romance, needing reassurance that a partner is "yours," or feeling an ownership over your offspring), what if we focused more on the experiences we have with that individual? Doing so will actually strengthen our bonds or, in some cases, help us to realize that perhaps that isn't a person with whom we want to be closely bonded. Or, let's consider the pursuit of greater career opportunity. What if we focused on the experience of working toward it and valued that more than the actual achievement of a new title? Or, once a new title has been granted, what if we spent more time valuing the experience of a new, higher position rather than considering how we might use it to pursue even more status or wealth? Choosing to focus on experiences rather than possessions (tangible or otherwise) is likely to lead to more contentment. 

 

LET GO OF WHAT YOU DON'T GET

It can be hard to realize sometimes when you're in a state of wanting, but the thing you want comes with baggage you cannot understand until you possess it. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "If a man could have half his wishes, he would double his troubles." (Or, in the words of The Notorious B.I.G., "mo money, mo problems.") Whatever it is you want is going to come with a set of issues that you can't anticipate now. You don't know what you don't know, and sometimes you're often better off not acquiring the things you think you want. I know the "everything happens for a reason" idea is cliche, but I believe in it. You can't foresee what will happen in the future, and I've found that not getting what I want has been a blessing in many cases (and getting what I want has rarely lived up to its hype). If you don't get it, it means it's not meant for you. (Or it's not meant for you right now. Things meant for you have a way of coming when you need them, not necessarily when you want them.)

 

APPRECIATE WHAT YOU DO HAVE

If you're familiar with Positively Present, it's going to be no surprise to see gratitude  — probably one of the most used bits of advice here — in this round-up of tips, but making an effort to recognize and appreciate what you do have (particularly what you once longed for and then obtained) is one of the best ways to counteract the challenging notion of always wanting something else. Things only bring us joy when we're aware of them, which is why we take so much pleasure from wanting. When we want something, we're hyper-focused on it, sometimes consumed by thoughts what life will be like if we have it. Once we've had it for awhile, we don't often spend as much time thinking about it. When you find yourself thinking, "I want..." consider challenging it with the thought, "I have..." 

 

SEEK OUT THE ROOT OF THE WANTING

How much of what you want is what you actually want and how much is someone else's idea of what you should want? It's hard to know for sure — after all, we're all products of the cultures and environments in which we are raised and it can be hard to separate our true desires from what we've been taught — but the more you pay attention to the real reasons for what you want, the more you dig down into the roots of that desire, the more likely you are to realize that what you want is actually based on what you think you're supposed to want. Looking at why you desire what you do (and, just as importantly, what you think will happen if you obtain that thing) will often help you realize that your wants are often rooted in foundations not put in place by you. 

 

VALUE CONTENTMENT OVER HAPPINESS

"The pursuit of happiness" is part of the US Declaration of Independence and, as result, many people here and around the world have come to associate the pursuit of happiness with living life to the fullest. Happiness has been held up as the ultimate goal, something all people should be striving for in whatever way feels right for them. We've come to understand that, while happiness doesn't look the same for everyone, everyone wants to be happy. But, as I've discussed many times before, happiness is a fleeting emotion. It's wonderful, but it doesn't last. Making it your life's goal is setting yourself up for constant disappointment (which often leads to pursuit of the next thing that you think will make you happy). The pursuit of happiness is great for capitalism, but not so great for contentment. Instead of focusing being happy, try striving for contentment. Aim to make the most of what's happening now, to accept what's been and look forward to what will be without setting expectations. 

 

When you're in a state of wanting, it can be difficult to realize this, but it's true: whatever you think you need to be happy — money, fame, love, acceptance, beauty, attention, success, diamonds, children, a house, etc. — won't actually make you happier than you are now, at least not for very long. Realizing this doesn't mean you shouldn't keep pursuing what you want (for what is life if not pursuit?); it only means that you should stop expecting that the having will be greater than the wanting. It means understanding that, even though it seems strange, wanting something can be fulfilling in itself, and not getting what you want doesn't have to mean failure. And, most importantly, it means that, cheesy as it may sound, you'll be able to realize that it is, in fact, a journey towards something has just as much value (if not more!) than the thing itself. 

 

 

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On Toxic Positivity


Positively Present - Still Be Positive

 

As I've seen tremendous growth on Instagram over the past few years (which I'm certainly not complaining about!), I've also seen a rise in angry, unkind, and negative comments. This is to be expected, but when you've been doing this for a decade and are only now facing resistance, it's admittedly a bit of an odd feeling. It's new. And it's not great. 

Coupled with this strange, new feeling is the notion that, because my brand is all about being positive (a word that clearly has a variety of meanings for people, which we'll get into in a bit), I'm expected to behave in a certain way. Anything response I give that's not 100% cheerful, positive, uplifting, or agreeable is almost always followed by some version of, "well, that's not very positive of you!" 

The more I receive that kind of response, the more I realize people don't fully understand what I mean when I'm talking about positivity. And more and more, I'm receiving comments not only about my responses not being positive, but also about my content promoting what's known as "toxic positivity." 

Last week, I posted the image seen above on Instagram, and received a surprising number of comments related to toxic positivity, such as... 

"You seem like one of those people who tell people with actual depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health issues that they should just think differently and it will go away."

"I'm really happy for you if a positive mindset brings you further in life, but don't erase the voice of those who don't follow your path."

"Positive thoughts backed by negative emotions is just negativity with a bow on it."

"Positivity can be toxic. If you are hoping for the best, you will be let down when the worst happens."

"Positivity doesn't work because it doesn't deal with the actual problem."

 

If you haven't heard of toxic positivity before, it's the idea that suggesting people be only positive, happy, and cheerful causes more harm than good. I agree with that. That's why you'll never see me post "good vibes only" or "if you want to be happy, be." Happiness isn't my goal in life — and it shouldn't be yours either. Happiness is great, but it's an emotion and, depending on your genetic makeup and your current situation, it might impossible to achieve. Positivity, on the other hand is a mindset, and one that can be chosen at almost any time. I've written about the differences between happiness and positivity before in "Happiness vs. Positivity: What's the Difference?" but I thought I'd take some time this week to address my understanding positivity in relation to the concept of toxic positivity. 

 

  • Toxic positivity is referring to happiness (it should really be called "toxic happiness"); positivity and happiness are very different. As discussed in detail in the article referenced above, there's a big difference between happiness and positivity. Happiness is an emotion. Positivity is a mindset. Chasing happiness can be problematic (and often leads to unhappiness because, great as happiness is, it's a temporary emotional state and does not last). Pursuing positivity is not problematic because it is a mindset, not an emotion, and it can typically be accessed no matter what your emotional state might be. You cannot always be happy. You can almost always be positive. 

  • Toxic positivity encourages ignoring negative emotions, but true positivity is not about avoiding, glossing over, or repressing emotions (positive or negative). A positive mindset is about accepting all emotions and doing whatever possible to work through them, understand them, and garner more self-awareness. I, personally, am often very unhappy, anxious, stressed, etc., but I do my best to take what I've learned over the past decade of working on being more optimistic to stay positive. The words "be positive!" don't mean avoid bad feelings. It means do what you can with what you have to make the best of the situation (or at least don't make it worse). 

  • Toxic positivity presents itself as something anyone can do at any time, but positivity is a mindset that doesn't often come easily and must be worked at for most people. Though it is certainly very difficult at times, choosing a positive perspective is possible most of the time for most people. Happiness, however, is not accessible just because you want it. If something horrible has happened to you, you can't just be happy. You can, more often than not, be positive. Certainly there are situations (such as extreme depressive states or in the midst of a panic attack) when optimism does not feel like an option (it can be so difficult at times or the brain might be wired in such a way that it feels impossible), but, more often than not, positivity is possible in a way that happiness might not be. However, it does take work and practice to know how to find optimistic outlooks in difficult times. For a lot of people (and especially for me!), a positive mindset doesn't come easily and it requires a lot of work to develop it.  

  • Toxic positivity embraces a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, but positivity isn't about putting on a fake smile or feigning cheer. Smiling, acting cheerful, etc. are all about the emotion of happiness. Pretending you are feeling good when you're miserable is not what positivity is about. It's important to remember that you can work on positivity; it's a skill. Happiness is an emotion. Yes, sometimes you can find ways to access it (like doing things or being around people who make you feel happier), but you can't force it. You can present outwardly that you're happy, but deep down, you can't make yourself happy if you're not. You can, with practice and the right mental toolkit, find ways to be optimistic. Which leads me to the last (and perhaps most important point)...

  • Toxic positivity aims for good vibes at all times; positivity won't necessarily make you happy. If you are going through a difficult time, if you are dealing with depression, if you have intense anxiety and it's been triggered, being positive isn't going to make you happy. The thing about positivity is: it doesn't necessarily make things better; it just doesn't make them worse. Positivity is not the same as happiness and it will not necessarily make you happy. Positivity isn't a cure for your emotional state; it's a mindset to adopt when life is difficult (and also when it's great). It will not change the world around you; it will only impact the way you see it. 

 

Toxic positivity should actually be called toxic happiness because the "just be happy!" attitude has nothing to do with maintaining an optimistic outlook. Positivity is about assessing the situation, understanding your feelings, looking to see if there's anything you can do to make the situation better, and, if there's not, doing what you can do make the most of whatever the situation is. It's not about pretending. And it's definitely not about happiness. 

When people come by this page or follow me on Instagram, they see the bright colors and the cute illustrations and assume that I'm a happy, cheerful, life-loving person without a care in the world. The truth is: I'm just a normal person. I'm someone who has had anxiety my entire life. I've been depressed (not just sad, but actually depressed). I've had some really bad things happen to me. For the past decade, I've been working on living more positively in the present, and I still have highs and lows just like everyone else. I'm happy sometimes, sure, but I certainly wouldn't classify that as one of my top emotional states. And, as long as I can keep being positive and doing my best to live in the present, I'm okay with that. 

 

A Note about Optimism on Instagram

Writing the article above got me thinking about how my content is perceived on Instagram, so here are a few thoughts on that...

I spend a lot of time creating my posts for Instagram. This isn't just me doodling for a bit and then posting. When creating the post referenced above, I thought very carefully about the words I chose to use. I specifically did not use "depressed," for example, because, while it is possible to be depressed and positive, it is often so challenging that it feels impossible. Likewise, I chose the word "can" because it means that it's an option. If you're sad, you can be positive, but you don't have to be. Also, the notion that you can be two things at once is the core message of that illustration. Our emotional states are often very complex, and we should allow ourselves the freedom to feel multiple things at the same time. 

When I'm creating something that's based entirely on my own ideas (not a quote someone else said), a great deal of time goes into really thinking about whether the words I'm writing are true. I'm incredibly analytical by nature, so when I've posted something (especially on Instagram), I've typically spent a lot of time reflecting on how it might be perceived. I do my best to look at it from a number of points of view and assess if it might be misconstrued or misunderstood. It might just look like cute little drawings to the average viewer, but a lot of thought goes into the words and images I choose.

That being said, I'm also creating things that I need to see, writing words that speak to what I'm struggling with in that moment. Though the Positively Present brand has grown over the years, is still me, Dani, trying my best to cope with my own negative, anxious, and melancholic mind. What is true for me might not be true for everyone else. I'm not a doctor, a therapist, or a guru. I'm not psychologist, authority figure, or philosopher. I'm a creator, sharing my experiences with the world.

So, whether it's something on my Instagram account or something you've seen elsewhere online, I'd urge you think critically and with an open mind before making judgments or remarks about the content. What you see might not speak to you, but it might be true and useful for someone else (and, in the example of this particular post, I know it resonated with a lot of people). When it comes to the content you see on my page or pages like mind, keep an open mind. Take what works for you, and understand that not everything will. And know that, at least in my case, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I post. It might look pretty and light-hearted, but behind every post there's a lot of time spent thinking, analyzing, and carefully choosing words that I hope will help people (and me!) get better at living more positively in the present — regardless of whether or not we're currently happy. 

 

 

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