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OK Boomer: Why Toxic Positivity is Very Real & Very Annoying

Toxic positivity is the gilded trap that people should keep a positive attitude no matter how bad or tough things are. It's an "only good vibes" way of life.

The worst thing you can say to someone who is feeling bad is ‘ma3lesh’.


From “think positive” to “no bad days,” the internet is filled with uplifting quotations and phrases that are meant to inspire positivism. Positive thinking is sold as a path to salvation: even if we can’t control our circumstances, we can control our attitude. When really, practicing false cheerfulness—which psychologists call ‘toxic positivity’—keeps us from properly addressing both our feelings and the feelings of those we love.


Toxic positivity is the gilded trap that people should keep a positive attitude no matter how bad or tough things are. It's an "only good vibes" way of life.  And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity tends to reject difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, and often falsely positive facade. Toxic positivity is shallow. It’s a false reassurance. It’s like having a few too many scoops of ice cream and ending up sick.


Cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism, especially during tough times. An optimistic attitude is linked to a lot of advantages, like improved heart health, enhanced productivity, addiction recovery, and improved relationships. For many people, reducing negative self-talk and attempting to create an optimistic view is elementary to success and physical and mental well-being. But here’s the catch; positivity needs to be rooted in reality for it to actually be helpful.


When something bad happens, like losing your job, people tell you to “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” Now, these statements are usually well-intentioned—people just don't know what else to say. However, such words, at their best, come across as banal platitudes that let you off the hook without having to deal with other people's emotions. And at their worst, these comments shame people who are struggling with tough situations. It blames, it causes guilt, it avoids authentic human emotion, and it prevents growth. 


When someone allows themselves to be open and share a problem with someone close to them, yet their vulnerability is met with hollow phrases, the person feels disheartened and alienated. Toxic positivity can lead to superficial relationships when both people feel they have to maintain a happy, upbeat facade even when life honestly just sucks.


Susan David, a psychologist and consultant at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts and the author of “Emotional Agility” argues that toxic positivity is actually a form of gaslighting. When performing exaggerated positivity to avoid feeling someone’s pain, she says “You basically are saying to someone that my comfort in this situation is more important than your reality.”


We see it around us all the time. People with cancer are urged to keep positive because it will help them overcome their illness; people who are laid off are told it's for the best because they hated their job anyways; and mourning siblings are told, "at least your father died in his sleep."


When you express disappointment or sadness, and then someone tells you that “happiness is a choice,” what ends up happening is that we judge ourselves for feeling pain, and in turn we feel guilt. We end up feeling bad about feeling bad.


When people place a high value on their own happiness it can lead to less happiness, especially in situations where they expected to feel their happiest. Expecting happiness and then being disappointed or blaming yourself for not being happy enough has been tied to experiencing more depressive symptoms. Research by the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them, may actually be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run. These studies looked at the relationship between emotional acceptance and psychological health in over 1,300 adults and discovered that people who avoid confronting difficult emotions frequently end up feeling worse. So yeah, our feelings exist, it’s okay to actually feel them.


Instead, we should embrace our common humanity, so we don’t end up feeling alone on top of whatever other bad emotions we’re dealing with. Pursuing happiness indirectly, rather than making it the main focus, may just turn our search for positivity from toxic to tonic.