I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to “look on the bright side” when things go wrong. Last year, while studying abroad in London, I naively thought that my life would mirror a Taylor Swift song. Instead, my carefree times were quashed by a pandemic and the news of my grandfather’s sudden death. When I learned that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to Canada for his funeral, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
Text messages from friends and family poured in, reminding me to “think about the good times” and “try not to be sad.” At first, it seemed like perfectly sound advice since any situation could always be worse. I clenched my teeth together and tried to smile, thinking I could trick myself into believing that I was okay when, in reality, I was far from it. It wasn’t the first time I’d used positivity as an emotional Band-Aid, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Listen to an audio version of this story
For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.
Positivity has become a hot commodity—especially on social media. On Instagram, there are over 14 million posts that use the hashtag #goodvibesonly to spread overly optimistic quotes, like “When you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine” or “If it doesn’t make you happy, don’t invite it in.” In 2019, searches for “positive quotes to live by” increased by 279 percent on Pinterest. Meanwhile, one of TikTok’s commercials advertises that “good vibes” start by using the app.
Influencers have also been quick to embrace the trend. A search through YouTube brings up dozens of preachy videos promising that positivity can cure just about anything. Take Aileen Xu, who broadcasts tips to “change your life” to her 1.47 million subscribers. In one video about building positive habits, she twirls around merrily with a bouquet of wildflowers in hand before launching into her advice. “I will keep repeating it until every single person in the world will live with habits like these,” she says. “Stop playing the victim. Stop complaining. Stop blaming.” Then there’s Santoshi Shetty, an Instagram fashion influencer from India who was criticized on Twitter after offering one-on-one “therapy” for a fee of 1,500 rupees (equivalent to $25), calling it a “positive vibes” session. People are even selling themselves as fully trained positivity coaches or experts who help guide individuals away from negativity and toward a more cheerful path.
And, in case feeling those positive vibes isn’t enough, brands have made sure that there’s a way to show them off too. By one estimate, positivity has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry: there are rainbow-coloured embroidery patches, tie-dye journals, doormats, and baby onesies all bearing these notorious positivity slogans. One Etsy seller advertises something called “Good Vibes: Positive Energy Spray,” which is apparently a handmade quartz-infused replacement for burning sage (and costs $18.88 for a sixty-millilitre bottle).
The pressure to try to adopt positivity as a constant state of being has begun to feel exhausting. Some have gone as far as to call it “toxic positivity,” which may seem contradictory: After all, how can positivity—something that is by definition good—be bad?
Positive thinking is often used as a tool to eliminate negative emotions, like anger, sadness, and loneliness. The thought process behind toxic positivity is that, since these things makes us feel bad, it’s best not to feel them at all. “Toxic positivity isn’t necessarily about feeling good,” says Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “It’s about wanting to feel good and expecting to feel good”—even at the expense of other emotions. Suppressing all those bad vibes can actually prolong a person’s suffering, leading to additional stress on the body and mind. Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, told the Washington Post that it’s like having too many scoops of ice cream at once. “It’s really good and it makes us feel better, but you can overdo it,” she says. “Then, it makes us sick.”
The origins of toxic positivity were born from positive psychology, a branch of science focused on one’s search for happiness and contentment. After the Second World War, diagnoses of mental illness were on the rise, and positivity was hailed as a possible solution.
In the 1950s, one of positive psychology’s early proponents, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, wrote that “psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side.” Maslow began to open up a broader conversation around happiness as opposed to grief and trauma, which, at the time, are what most other psychologists were focusing their research on. In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, he wrote about how positivity can unlock a better understanding of human potential.
The field of positive psychology wasn’t officially established until decades later, in 1998. Its primary founder, American psychologist Martin Seligman, had an epiphany while weeding in his garden. When his five-year-old daughter began throwing weeds into the air and dancing around, Seligman yelled at her to stop. She reminded him of how, at a younger age, she would have whined, but now, she was choosing to listen. It made Seligman wonder whether every person was capable of such control. If his daughter could change her tune so quickly, couldn’t adults do the same? He concluded that the only way to move on from “the really bad stuff,” like helplessness, depression, and panic, was to recognize “the missing piece,” or the positive.
Seligman’s concept evolved into the burst of toxic positivity that we see today. And, since the trend first emerged from a time of global suffering, it makes sense that the COVID-19 pandemic—which fuelled global job losses of 255 million, a death toll of over 4 million, and a new mental health crisis that has affected approximately 40 percent of Canadians—would expedite its grand reentry into society.
Just look at the hobbyists who reimagined quarantine as “free time” by learning to bake bread or knit blankets. While it certainly isn’t wrong to make the best of a bad situation, it creates a type of social pressure that can make those of us who spent a year moping around the house or bingeing Netflix feel even worse. “We are being bombarded with ideas about how this time should be used to write a novel, learn a new language, and find our zen, and that we are somehow failing if we are not doing these things,” Margaret Seide, a New York–based psychiatrist, said in an interview with Health. “These messages delegitimize the anxiety and heartbreak ripping through our country and the world right now, robbing us of the right to have bad days in the midst of this crisis.”
It’s important to note that toxic positivity isn’t the same as general positivity. The solution is by no means to embody a Debbie Downer persona and respond to every bit of good news with a pessimistic quip. According to Brett Ford, positivity starts to become problematic when individuals reject all negative emotions.
This was demonstrated in a study by the American Psychological Association. One hundred and eighty female participants were divided into two groups and shown “sad, neutral and amusing films.” Half of the subjects were asked to react according to how they felt while the other half were asked to hold back. Researchers found that, while the subjects in the second group were able to control their negative emotions more easily than their positive ones, suppressing those feelings influenced individuals’ psychological functioning. It’s an experience most people can relate to: forcing a smile, holding back tears, saying “I’m fine” when you’re far from it. In a survey by Science of People, over 75 percent of respondents said they had rejected or ignored their emotions in an attempt to be happy.
Trying to live through a glossy Instagram filter can shame us away from experiencing real emotions. In his New York Times bestselling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, author Mark Manson writes, “Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires”—which is something TED talker Mahmoud Khedr, co-founder of FloraMind, an online youth mental health organization, experienced first-hand.
Khedr spent years dealing with racism as an Egyptian immigrant while trying to save his failing business. When he started having suicidal thoughts, his friends and family could offer only two words of advice: stay positive. He tried, but it was never the answer. “Being positive, as I came to understand it, meant completely avoiding the problem,” he said. “Imagine if you broke your hand, God forbid, and instead of taking you to the hospital, I’ll tell you, just be happy.”
So, while experiencing pain may not feel as good as blocking it out, Ford emphasizes that we require an entire spectrum of emotions to lead balanced lives. Actually learning to accept those so-called negative feelings can decrease overall negativity in day-to-day life. “When we accept emotions, sit with them and kind of watch them come and go, they end up passing more quickly,” says Ford. “It can be really unpleasant, but it’s something that’s worth trying out.” And, she adds, it’s how we can be genuinely happier in the long run.