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The positive psychology of goth

The positive psychology of goth

...or how a dark subculture can be a metaphoric light.   

I am no stranger to woe and darkness, for I am made of gooey gothic splendor.
One of the major misconceptions about the goth scene is that it’s only about the darker side: death, gloom, and despair. Despite this knee-jerk association, the reality is that some of the rather sunshiny constructs from the field of positive psychology apply quite easily (and amusingly!) to goths and the goth scene.

But first: a quick background. Historically, the field of psychology has focused on what’s gone wrong in someone’s life or mind: depression, poor relationships, repressed deathly urges toward your father – you know, the usual. However recent years have witnessed an increased attention on the positive aspects of human functioning: happiness, life satisfaction, resilience. While even the problematic areas, like depression, are in need of further understanding in the field, psychology has only granted attention to things like happiness in the last few decades. Okay, so now that the academic grounding has been established, let’s shine some light on this dark scene:

Flow. Not just a word to describe one’s cape, flow is the positive psychology term that refers to being fully in the moment. Because you are so absorbed in the current task, in flow, time appears to stand still -- or to not exist at all. An additional characteristic of flow is diminished worry about the judgment of others. Goth club dancing can be an example of flow. And lest readers accuse me of being unrealistic, yes: in any given goth club, there is certainly a fraction of the dancing population that is self-consciously awkward. (And I say to those people: we’ve all been there, baby bats. Keep on dancing.) But most people tend to eventually reach a place where (maybe with the help of a drink or two, repeated monthly), they start to lose themselves in dance. The gothic two-step becomes more automatic, the lyrics to “This Corrosion” familiar background noise, and the rhythmic plucking of invisible cobwebs from the air becomes what you are.

Even for the goths who don’t go to the clubs, the fact that the goth community supports the arts also increases the likelihood that goths would find themselves in flow. Whether it’s painstakingly painting your face (eyeliner 101), or pursuing more traditional visual or musical arts, the creative escapism that art provides offers a refuge from the stresses of daily life. Some goth photographers spend meditative days wandering graveyards, looking for just the right angle from which to capture the decadent beauty of dilapidated tombstones.

Happiness. “This is the happy house. We’re happy here in the happy house.” I mean, Siouxsie herself said so. Happiness has been one of the more elusive constructs for psychologists to define. Some researchers claim that one of the components of happiness is positive emotion. So how can a subculture seemingly built-on-sad translate to happiness? For those who question positive emotion in the goth world, I ask: have you ever seen the smiling faces when “Time Warp” comes on at 1:30am in a goth club? Hell, in Boston in the late 1990s, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” as the last song of the evening could turn the place into a smiling, bouncing manic scene. I remember people literally bouncing their way out of the club into the street. Human pits of despair, indeed.

Another element associated with happiness is meaning in life. Meaning in life is about your purpose, your reason for being. While being Azrael Abyss, Prince of Sorrows might bring some people ultimate meaning in life (hey, I ain’t judgin’), a lot of goths find deeper meaning in artistic or intellectual pursuits and relationships formed through this scene. Some goths go on to make tiny humans or rescue animals to join their gothic families, some have successful careers or make other types of contributions to humanity. Being goth doesn’t preclude a meaningful life – it might even encourage it.

Resilience. More than just a quality of the stompiest of boots, resilience is the positive psychology concept that refers to the ability to come back strong from setbacks in life. As goth as it sounds, this really is a “rising from the ashes” sort of concept. Few goths stumble into the scene from a place of complete satisfaction with life (or, you know, Prom Queen/King titles). Rather, these sensitive souls have usually experienced some form of social or psychic hardship. The goth scene can function as a place for one to find solace and rebuild, often emerging more sure of oneself, better socially connected, and living a more “authentic” life than pre-goth-era. This serves as a template for overcoming obstacles in life.

I would also argue that the goth scene provides a safer social environment for people to reveal their struggles. (Arguably, there are some melodramatic goth folks out there who revel in being cooky and abuse this privilege. I’m looking at you, manic goth pixie with the string of disastrous, very-public relationships.) So, I can nearly guarantee that the local yacht club (is a yacht club a real thing? Maybe I’ve seen too many 80s movies) is less supportive of acquaintances admitting they’ve got some troubles than the denizens at the local goth club. This social support and this sense of belonging bolster psychological health. The goth scene creates the sense that even when things are bad, you aren’t a failure at life, or without friends, or without people who understand you. And knowing you are able to weather bad things prepares you for the next time the (bat)shit hits the fan.

Focusing on the present, seeking meaning in life, becoming more resilient – these are no small things in a person’s life. Far from the stereotypical melancholic associations of the scene, the goth world can bring out the light. It might just have a darker wrapper than you’d expect.


floi Journal author