What is Toxic Positivity?

Learn how our never-ending search for happiness and a "good vibes only" culture can be harmful, and explore ways to seek out healthy positivity.


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.

Where Does Toxic Positivity Come From?

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.

Examples of Toxic Positivity:

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:

  • A friend who dismisses your emotions (hopefully unintentionally!)
  • Positive mantras from self-help books without the appropriate context
  • Influencers on social media spreading “just be positive” messages
  • Suppression of your own negative emotions
  • Feelings of guilt for your unhappiness

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.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

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:

  1. Reduce your time on social media. You may not realize the effects it has on your mental health until you take a significant break.
  2. Try to remove the guilt. Recognize feelings as you have them and slowly try to understand where they come from.
  3. Surround yourself with self-aware people. Insecure friends may fall into the habit of boasting and making you feel inadequate by comparison.
  4. Understand other approaches to a good life. Learning about Buddhism or meditation, for example, could help you find perspective.

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.

Healthy 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:

  • Gratitude - Try writing down things that went well each day in a gratitude journal. This practice can help you learn to recognize positive moments even during tough times.
  • Savoring - By understanding that happiness comes and goes, you can fully appreciate true joy when it hits you. Celebrate your wins intentionally and with loved ones when possible.
  • Enjoy time with yourself - Go for long walks, learn to meditate, or take up a hobby that lets your mind wander. Getting to know your own mind paves the way for real progress.
  • Let your thoughts flow - Complex emotions and ideas can take work to understand and dissect. We recommend writing in a journal, talking to a friend, or trying therapy.
  • Recognize progress - Your friends, your family, your accomplishments, and everything that’s gotten you to where you are. Many people even suggest that awareness of your own mortality can help put life into perspective.

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.

April 10, 2021

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