Thumbs up and thumbs down. 'Up' is positive and 'down' is negative.

If you are flying high, you are being very successful. Are you held in high regard, too? People must have great respect for you! However, if you (Heaven forbid!) sink so low, you behave very unethically; and if your spirits are as low as you sank, you must be feeling miserable about what you have done! Though this article may have so far read like an overkill idioms lesson from your overzealous high school English teacher, it is not what it is going to be about today. In fact, it is going to be about something that comes so naturally to us we barely see its significance; directions. Have you ever wondered why ‘up’ has positive connotations while ‘down’ negative ones? Why do we associate what is ‘up’ with what is good, and what is ‘down’ with what is bad?

Please do bear in mind that we are going to adopt a purely rational approach to answering these questions and avoid relying on any external sources on the matter. As always, our purpose in the Taken for Granted is to apply our own informal logic to everything we observe in everyday life.

Let us begin, shall we?

How it all started: ‘up’ is positive and ‘down’ is negative

Woman at running track.

How did the association of ‘up’ with positive and ‘down’ with negative all start? To know the answer to this question, just look up. What do you see?

The sky.

Now, if you look down, what will you see?

The ground.

The sky and the ground are going to be the key elements in this analysis, and rightly so because they have been with humans since creation and the environment is part of what influences human language and perception.

Think about it. If you want to know what up means, you must know what up points at. Similarly, If I say I do not like ‘this drink’, you must know what drink it is to know why I feel about it this way. You take a sip and you realise it is coffee; even if you did not, you would have great success in guessing why I disliked it because you knew what I was referring to. Since coffee is also popular, it would make the guessing game all too easy: It could be the bitterness of the taste, the low quality of the beans or your forgetting to add some sugar.

The sky and the ground are like the most popular drinks in human history, and they taste the same to all humans because the position of every human being in relation to them is the same; under and above, respectively, which explains why their connotations are universally similar.

Let us see what these connotations are in detail and, by extension, why ‘up’ is positive while ‘down’ is negative.

Why we associate ‘up’ with positive

Clear midnight sky. 'Up' is positive because the sky is.

What is not to admire about the sky? The floating clouds, the crispness of the hollow emptiness behind which everything we have ever known not to know anything about is hiding in plain arrogance, challenging humans to come and explore — if they dare — if they can; the sky thus commands respect not only because it reminds humans of what they can never really reach (the beyond), but also of what they can never really do to reach it (flying). This unavailability is appealing.

Come to think of it, I never really understood why people clapped their hands at the end of each flight until writing this very paragraph. The airplane is the only means of transportation where the phenomenon occurs. Apparently, Flying is the ultimate feat of genius. It is the epitome of success; and though humans have technically succeeded in flying, the sky will always be viewed favourably because there are heights yet to reach. ‘Up’ remains an eternal challenge.

Another possible reason the sky, and ‘up’ by extension, enjoys positive connotations is the twinkling pearls its bosom exposes whenever it walks in on the world with its nightie. How can you look at the stars in a midnight summer sky and feel nothing but beauteous awe? This might explain why ‘up’ is associated with what is beautiful. If you like something, you give it a thumbs ‘up’.  

The sky’s sheer size can also explain why ‘up’ is positive. Humans love abundance. Abundance is good, and the bigger, the better. It is the reason why we like the Atlantic Ocean, Burj Khalifa, the Giza Pyramids, the Mississippi, etc. The sky is the planet’s blanket. It follows you wherever you go. It is as big as your dream of travelling the world and the seven seas. There is nothing bigger than the sky, and that is why ‘up’ is ‘more’ — after all, is there anything more abundant than the the sky?

To sum it all up, ‘up’ is positive because what it points at also is; the sky remains a symbol of challenge, unavailability, beauty, grandeur and abundance.

Why we associate ‘down’ with negative

Human skulls buried underground. 'Down' is negative because the ground is.

For something that carried both the physical (and worse, the psychological) weight of humans since the beginning of existence, the ground is outrageously underappreciated. However, since it is human nature to take blessings for granted until they are lost, it should not be surprising. I wonder if humanity would finally acknowledge the greatness of the ground if you ship its entirety to Jupiter where there is nothing but emptiness to keep falling through.

The unhygienic nature of the ground could be why ‘down’ is negative to humans. It is the direction pointing at the dirt, mud and — God knows what. This is also why hands are more pleasant body parts than feet to humans; if they walked on hands, it would have been the other way around.

Another reason that might justify contempt for what is ‘down’ is the simple fact that humans are above it; and since they associate what is ‘above’ with greatness, they feel like they are to the ground what the sky is to them — the ground apparently disagrees and throws some nice tectonic tantrums from time to time to humble them.

Availability could also explain why humans do not regard the ground as ‘highly’ as its northern friend. Everyone who has ever lived walked on it. It has been humanity’s doormat for millennia. The ground also does not represent a challenge. It is ordinary because it is within everyone’s reach; and to the human mind, what is ordinary and unchallenging is unworthy of respect, which is exactly what ‘down’ connotes.

To sum it all up, ‘down’ is negative because what it points at also is; the ground is a symbol of uncleanliness, availability, ordinariness and effortlessness.

Final word on why ‘up’ is positive and ‘down’ is negative

Crystal ball: the ground is above and the sky below. The opposite of up is positive and down is negative because gravity is shifting upwards.

In this article, we talked about why ‘up’ is positive and ‘down’ is negative.

If I had to pin down the connotative dichotomy between ‘up’ and ‘down’ to a single culprit, it would be gravity. If humans were to live on a planet where gravity pulls upwards, I have no doubt ‘down’ would be positive and ‘up’ negative.

Personally, I love both directions; I know it sounds silly, but I would not want to feel I am discriminating against directions based on their position relative to my body!

What do you think? Do you have any other ideas to share about the matter? Does the above analysis make sense to you?

Thanks for reading!

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