How to avoid Toxic Positivity

Latest News Thursday, 03 Mar 2022

Do you recognise some of these statements?

“You have to be a fighter.”
“Look on the bright side of life.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”

If so, you will know how annoying they are and how damaging they can be to the many people who are feeling low. They are part of a suite of comments and behaviours that are best described as ‘Toxic Positivity”.  

I believe we need to teach children through example how to respond to these moments. It is something that is learnt. No one can be blamed for saying the damaging comments they do – most think that they are expressing support and good will.

Here is a list of comments that describe the ways in which toxic positivity is expressed:

These are best described as certain platitudes that people say and are supposed to be helpful but they are anything but helpful. When we talk to our children it is not helpful to deny them the right to feel what they do by summarily dismissing their feelings with “Look on the bright side of life”.

And for the person who is battling a serious illness, it is devastating to hear comments such as “be a fighter” as if the treatment parallels war and all one has to do is ‘conquer’ to get well.

In listening to this described on the ABC’s All in the Mind podcast recently (Toxic Positivity – when happiness becomes harmful) those who were suffering illness felt more bereft. What they truly wanted is for someone to say for example: “That must be so shit”.

Many of these statements are truly irritating and lead to people shutting down and avoiding conversations that:

Shame them – Toxic Positivity tells them that their emotions are invalid or unacceptable Guilt them: hey - if you aren't finding a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, you must be doing something wrong! Avoids genuine human emotion: it makes the person saying the comment avoid the real issue and makes them feel uncomfortable. An excellent article on Toxic Positivity can be found here.  

Toxic positivity is associated with happiness movements. When we make happiness the goal in and of itself it backfires. In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished -- but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to .....: Meaning and purpose, an insight he came to early in life.

Now, over twenty years later, the book's ethos - its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self - seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. "To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

Research has shown that having vision, purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. "It is the very pursuit of happiness," Frankl said, "that thwarts happiness."

Frankl invented the term Tragic Optimism – which is the antidote to Toxic Positivity. “Tragic optimism” is the search for meaning during the inevitable tragedies of human existence, and is better for us than avoiding darkness and trying to “stay positive.” (Kaufman, The Atlantic)

“Telling someone to “stay positive” in the middle of a global crisis is missing out on an opportunity for growth, not to mention likely to backfire and only make them feel worse” says Kaufman. “Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.”

Here is an example of Toxic Positivity which I have just found on LinkedIn.


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