Stay positive! Good vibes only! Our culture's smiley insistence on feeling happy 24/7 now has its own name: "toxic positivity." And this happiness pressure has started to raise concern among mental health experts. While you might not think you're subjected to this pressure to be all smiles all the time, there are many unexpected ways messages of toxic positivity may be a part of your life.
I reached out to Dr. Allison Niebes-Davis, a licensed clinical psychologist, for her professional definition of the problem: "Toxic positivity is an oversimplified approach to difficult stuff. It insists on people only seeing the bright side, that they be happy, cheerful, and positive. Phrases like 'Just think positive,' 'It’ll get better,' and 'Everything happens for a reason' are frequent offenders."
But what's so bad about being positive, right? Isn't that a good thing? Well, not when it's taken to the extreme. As Dr. Niebes-Davis explains to Romper, "Toxic positivity minimizes painful emotions and downplays difficult experiences. It sends a subtle but clear message that there’s no space for sadness or tough stuff. When we insist on only looking at the positive, we shame people for struggling, and as a result, they often feel isolated and alone."
Toxic positivity is so interwoven into our current culture that it pops up in ways many of us probably don't even register. As Dr. Neibes-Davis says, it's "sneaky." Below I point out the top three ways it sneaks its rainbow-patterned way into your day.
1. Social Media
The first, and most obvious culprit. Anyone who's spent any time on Insta is well aware of the endless #positivevibes posts, usually featuring someone in a stylish white fedora hanging off the back of a yacht somewhere off the coast of Croatia. (Guess what, Genius Fedora Woman? It's pretty easy to be positive in that sitch.)
While it's always good to be aware of one's social media consumption, it can help to make a special note of the many "positivity" messages you are seeing in your feed and sending to your brain. How do they make you feel? Do they simply make you want to buy a white fedora? Or set a fedora store on fire? Take stock of your emotional state post-scroll.
2. Happiness Merch
There currently seems to be a surplus of products featuring not-so-subliminal messages of positivity. Happiness is clearly #onbrand. From "Happy!" tees at Old Navy, to "Good Vibes Only" throw pillows at Target, to journals embossed with "Think Positive Be Positive" — this glittery stuff is everywhere. And while these items can be cute and fun, it's also a steady stream of dictums that we are unconsciously absorbing in our day-to-day. Maybe you just lost your job. Or your dog. Or your mind. You certainly don't want to "Smile!" You probably want to go home and shatter your "Good Vibes Only" mug with ball-peen hammer. And if so, well that is a perfectly normal and healthy response! As Dr. Niebes-Davis wisely reminds us: "Some things just aren’t happy. Some situations just can’t be made shiny."
3. Friends IRL
Forget the social media "friends," what about your actual buds that you hang with? How are they when you try to open up about your struggles? Are they able to just sit with you and your feelings? Or do they immediately try to talk you out of your emotions, and put a "positive" spin on your pain?
While it can feel like a reflex to try and cheer up a pal who's having a hard time, sometimes what we really need is to just let our friends feel whatever it is they're feeling. Says Dr. Niebes-Davis: "If you have someone in your life who insists on always looking on the bright side, gently let them know that while they mean well, their response actually makes things worse. Remind them that while encouragement is helpful, validation of your emotions and your experience is even better."
While trying to "stay positive" can of course be a good and sometimes necessary strategy for getting up and plowing through yet another day as a mortal being scurrying over a dying rock floating through space, it's important to stay in tune with how you're really feeling, and to not feel "bullied" into a elated state of being.
And of course, it's equally important to not bully anyone else into a better mood. Dr. Niebes-Davis reminds people to "make sure that you’re not unintentionally dishing out toxic positivity to others. Take the opportunity to model healthy and compassionate support for others, leaving space for both the positive and the negative."
And that's what's it's all about, right? The positive and the negative. As writer Harlan Ellison so wisely mused: "For without pain, there can be no pleasure. Without sadness, there can be no happiness. Without misery there can be no beauty. And without these, life is endless, hopeless, doomed and damned." The quote is unfortunately a bit too long for a Target tank. Which is a shame, because I would totally buy that and wear it to the beach.
Remember — feeling lousy or sad or at a loss isn't in any way a failure. It's just a part of ye olde human experience.