Be happy! Smile more! Look on the bright side! These phrases might make you cringe if you’ve ever been in an unhappy place and faced a relentless source of positivity. Perhaps a friend was just trying to cheer you up but failed to recognize that they were actually only making the problem worse.
You may have heard that smiling can instantly boost your mood, but even that is debated by psychologists.
There’s a growing trend on social media of what many are calling toxic positivity. What is toxic positivity? We’ll define it as:
A misguided attempt to spread happiness by promoting the concept that negative feelings can be avoided by simply maintaining a positive mindset.
At its core, toxic positivity is problematic because it encourages a mentality where negative emotions are suppressed instead of being dealt with in a healthy way. Some have compared this to “emotional gaslighting” because of the way it denies very real feelings: you can’t force depression to disappear by smiling and dancing. Finding real happiness requires an understanding of the existence of negative emotions.
Happiness is celebrated in American culture. Buy a house and you will be happy. Find the right partner and you’ll be happy. Fit in and work hard and happiness will be just around the corner. If you haven’t achieved happiness, you might feel like you’re failing somehow.
In modern society, toxic positivity can most easily be found in disingenuous self-promotion, typically on social media. With an environment of social influencers, follower counts, and rewards for likes and positive comments (❤️ this!), it’s no wonder that positivity has gotten a little out of control.
If you haven’t achieved happiness, you might feel like you’re failing somehow.
I’d like to think that most toxic positivity is an unintentional side-effect of ambitious influencers. Spreading positivity seems like a worthy pursuit and popular accounts have proven that it’s a sure way to gain followers. Over-the-top joy and cheerful proverbs can genuinely give us warm fuzzy feelings when we aren’t being exposed to so darn much of it!
Distrust is an emerging issue as well. When you’re in front of a camera with video filters and professional editing, real emotions can get lost and unrecognizable. How can we know what’s real when everything feels “produced?” Seeing a beautiful person explain how to be happy like them makes many of us just want to curl up and delete Instagram.
I’ve used the example of an overly enthusiastic Instagram influencer spreading toxic positivity by suggesting that “you too can be happy and beautiful if you try harder,” but there are many more ways this can manifest:
Sometimes the best way to handle your negative emotions is to sit with them, learn to understand them, and notice the ways they come and go. There’s no secret pill to cure sadness and understanding the chemicals that cause happiness is a great place to start.
A Buddhist monk would tell you that life consists of pain and suffering. This isn’t to say that happiness is unachievable but rather that comfort (or enlightenment) can come from learning to accept the ebbs and flows in life. Find gratitude in what you already have.
You can’t always be over-the-moon happy and expecting to be might put you in a vicious cycle. Start by avoiding toxic positivity and the false notion that happiness is all that matters.
Tips to avoid toxic positivity:
Luckily, there’s an entire field of study called positive psychology and more research coming out every day on how to make small changes to find more positivity.
Not all positivity is bad and most of it is likely well-intentioned. When you approach positivity with the idea that it isn’t a magic cure for negative feelings, but instead a way to discover balance, you’ll find that it can be improved with effort. Routines, habits, and shifts in perspective can all help you slowly infuse healthy positivity into your life. These are just a few ways to get started:
No post on happiness would be complete without reminding you that this all comes from the perspective of a single author. Please consider my thoughts with an open mind and know that what makes life meaningful to you can be very different than the next person.