Have you ever met someone that is irrepressibly positive? Perhaps you know someone who makes a point to always look on the bright side of life? They may simply seem permanently cheery.
Many people may see this as a good thing, after all, happiness is often healthy and linked with a longer life. It may sound odd, but there are down sides to always having a smile on your face. In fact, it can be downright unhealthy and dangerous to force yourself to be happy all the time. This phenomenon is called toxic positivity. It’s something that really came to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people began discussing the mental health implications — from losing loved ones to losing livelihoods and more. But what is toxic positivity exactly, and how does it differ from being generally happy?
American culture has always placed a high importance on happiness — the pursuit of happiness is one of the founding rights of citizens after all. Toxic positivity is effectively taking that right to an unrealistic and compulsive extent. In many senses, it’s taking “don’t worry, be happy” to the extreme by ignoring or even suppressing negative feelings and forcing on a smile. In some ways, this is understandable. Being unhappy isn’t fun. Choosing to be happy, as some might see it, can also give a sense of control in an otherwise sad or uncontrollable situation (one of the reasons it became a problem during the global pandemic).
Why is it potentially dangerous for you to try to feel happy as much as you can? There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic or even looking on the bright side if its done in a healthy way. When it becomes toxic, however, you’ll begin to have issues. We’ll discuss how you can distinguish between the two later, but for now, let’s focus on the risks.
By falsely focusing on happiness only, you may have a demeaning effect on those around you going through the same thing.
We’ve touched on many of these in our article “Why It’s Okay to be Sad Sometimes,” so if you’re curious about the personal risks of toxic positivity, check that out. You can take this further, though, by expanding the risks to the social realm. By falsely focusing on happiness only, you may have a demeaning effect on those around you going through the same thing. Think about it like this — someone tells you they aren’t doing well. You try to make them feel better and tell them to just be happy, every cloud has a silver lining, etc. Instead of recognizing and validating their feelings, you’ve actually written them off. This lack of support not only makes them feel worse in the moment, but it may also isolate you from those around you. Ultimately, it may not even work, as studies have shown that forced positivity and placing too great of an importance on happiness can make you generally unhappy.
Toxic positivity can be both internal and external but can basically be identified as a denial or rejection of authentic negative emotions and replacing them with fake happiness. Often, this will be accompanied by a sense of guilt about feeling the negative emotions, which can create a negative spiral. This may manifest as telling yourself (or others) quippy little clichés, like “every cloud has a silver lining” or “always look on the bright side of life.” You can also be toxically positive by avoiding situations that may turn negative, like avoiding an important but tough conversation with a family member.
The core signs of toxic positivity will be the rejection of authentic, negative emotions replaced by forced happiness.
Externally, toxically positive actions may be responding to others’ pain in a tone-deaf manner, like telling someone who’s sad about a divorce to move on. You may do this because you’re trying to help or because their sadness makes you uncomfortable, but it still crosses the line. It could also make them feel guilty or be a total rejection of their negative emotions, like telling somebody it’s not a big deal or to buck up. You may even shame them. The worst case would be avoiding the person experiencing the sadness so that you don’t have to experience it. Remember, toxic positivity can manifest in many ways, depending on the situation, but the core signs will be the rejection of authentic, negative emotions replaced by forced happiness.
You’ve noticed toxic positivity creeping into your attitude. What can you do? It’s all about bringing balance to the situation. The first step is acknowledging your emotions as they truly are and allowing yourself to feel them. This is called emotional acceptance. Practicing mindfulness may help you sort out your negative emotions without suppressing them. Furthermore, you can focus on cultivating a rich and authentic emotional complexity. This means allowing yourself to feel the whole spectrum of emotions. For example, let’s say you have an older loved one who has struggled with an illness for years, and they pass away. Allow yourself to feel sad that they’re gone, happy for the good times you had together, and relief that they’re no longer struggling.
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Just remember, whatever you’re feeling, be kind to yourself while you deal with whatever is causing the negative emotions. This may include using some strategies that may feel borderline toxic to you, like the little clichés or looking for silver linings. These aren’t inherently toxic since they may help soften some negative feelings. As long as you’re practicing emotional acceptance, you’re well on your way toward avoiding toxic positivity.