We've heard an endless amount about positivity and its supposedly life-changing benefits for our health and productivity.

Yet this culture of happiness comes with a potential downside that researchers are only just getting to grips with.

"Directives to smile, be happy and to 'look on the bright side' are everywhere one turns," said Dr Octavia Calder-Dawe, of Massey University's SHORE & Whāriki Research Centre

"New indices and measures are monitoring people's positivity around the world, while guides to positive thinking and 'selfie-made' happiness flood mainstream and social media."


Women, in particular, were encouraged to overcome obstacles through upbeat emotional management and "relentless positivity" – a theory that's found its way from organisational planning to mindfulness blogs.

But Calder-Dawe said the emphasis on positive emotion sat alongside rising socio-economic precarity – and high levels of stress and distress reported by young women.

In a new study, being supported with a $300,000 grant from the Marsden Fund, Calder-Dawe will look closer at the effect this is having here in New Zealand.

"The aim of the project is to find out how positivity imperatives mesh with young women's everyday emotional practices."

With Professor Margaret Wetherell of the University of Auckland, Calder-Dawe planned to carry out qualitative interviews with 24 women aged between 18 and 35.

Participants would be recruited from three groups: those who worked in the service industry; had small children; and were aspiring or established influencers on social media.

Separately, the researchers will track 10 women as individual case studies.

The study will include "go along" interviews carried out over social media, and analysis of participants' posting to Instagram – a platform where happy self-portraiture was the expected norm.


"The biggest challenges – and delights – of research are difficult to predict in advance, and usually arise in the analysis phase of the research," Calder-Dawe said.

"Through this research, we're hoping to reveal how positivity 'touches down' in women's everyday emotional lives, and to examine the psychological, social and political implications of positivity practices."

"The research is also designed to yield new theory and methods for investigating how the emotional tenor of policy and popular culture intersects with the conduct of everyday life."