Think being upbeat all the time is good for you? Don't be silly. Fleur Britten explains why putting on a smile and falling for an inspirational quote can be bad for your career, relationships and health. You have been warned.
Do you have FOBM, or fear of being mean? Do you ensure that everyone is always "in like" with you? Do you tell white lies so that people don't think you're a neghead? Yes, yes and yes? Time to wipe that fake smile off your face — you are suffering from toxic positivity.
According to the American psychotherapists Jamie Long and Samara Quintero, toxic positivity is the "excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations". In a widely read recent post on their website, they wrote: "When positivity is used to silence the human experience, it becomes toxic." Examples include trying to "just get on with it" by dismissing emotions, minimising the experiences of others with feelgood statements, and shaming people for expressing anything other than positivity. Toxic positivity is a dogma that insists, they write, "that only keeping positive is the right way to live your life".
Who could blame us, given the barrage of motivational mantras and #livingmybestlife hashtags. "Social media sets us up to showcase the best aspects of our lives," Quintero says. "But anything that creates a mask is not authentic." It's hard to resist, though, says Scarlett Curtis, whose latest book, It's Not OK to Feel Blue (and Other Lies), serves as a healthy antidote. "Posting about the best parts of your life can reflect onto your real life, so it becomes this continuing cycle of trying to maintain the illusion." The multibillion-pound beauty and wellness industries are also in on the conspiracy, telling you, Long says, that "you need to look your best and live your best life — oh, and don't leave home without full-coverage foundation". The pressure is on.
At best, toxic positivity is smug and superficial; at worst, it's bad for our health and can make us unhappy. The issue with toxic positivity, according to Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, is that "it implies that some emotions are good and some are bad — and that bad emotions are not allowed". David points the finger at the happiness movement: "What gets lost in the well-intentioned message to 'be happier' is that being unhappy is an authentic human experience that has evolved to help us thrive as a species." Your bad mood, she says, is simply data that informs you how to adapt to environmental threats. Parental guilt, for example, signals that "you value connection with your kids and you're feeling a lack of it". Boredom at work shows that you value learning, but aren't getting enough. "When we dismiss these emotions, we become less practised in understanding what the discomfort is telling us, and therefore fail to develop skills to deal with the world. There is a cost to our resilience, and we become less happy." When emotions are denied, she adds, they get stronger. "There is a rebound effect — internal pain always comes out — but it's a faulty, passive way of being in the world."
Indeed, Long and Quintero have observed the toxic build-up in their clients. "Most say they're overwhelmed with stress and anxiety," Long says, "but when we take a deeper look, we find that the toxic-positivity style of coping is very common." Failing to express a broad range of emotions affects our ability to regulate our stress response, she explains, and therefore causes intense stress reactions, such as anxiety, depression and IBS.
If you're starting to feel like a happiness failure, don't worry, the backlash is coming. "There's fatigue around the Goopish pursuit of constant perfection," says Lucie Greene, founder of the LA-based forecasting agency Light Years. She attributes the pushback in part to feminism, and its "sophistication in understanding the biases and seeing through the constructs that make us feel bad".
So are you ready to #speakyourtruth? At a talk earlier this year, the feminist author Chidera Eggerue announced the end of her "Little Miss Nice" persona. "I've become a lot more direct," she says, "because I don't see how far it's got us by playing nice. I am no longer invested in making the world comfortable for my oppressors, when I could be using that same energy to centre my own happiness." And did the world end? Apparently not. "I have found myself in a lot more debates," she concedes, "but it's empowering. I've also developed more meaningful relationships." In fact, she adds, "I wish I could go back in time and do all this earlier."
Curtis posts crying selfies because "if my feed is too positive, it doesn't feel like a reflection of me … It gets rid of the shame I hold. People respond to it better. They're sick of seeing the other stuff."
It is the act of "moving our uncomfortable emotions out of our body", say Long and Quintero, that "keeps us healthy and relieves the tension caused by suppressing the truth. Accepting ourselves as we are is the path to a robust emotional life."
But will we become emotionally incontinent snowflakes? "I'm not suggesting that we have to act on every single feeling," says David, whose concept of emotional agility is that we notice and accept our inner world with compassion and curiosity. "It doesn't mean that you need to have it out with whoever you're upset with." Indeed, it's toxic positivity that causes fragility, she says, whereas "being honest about your feelings leads to agility and resilience".
What about anger, though? Can we really let rip with such a stigmatised emotion? Is rage permitted? "There's a difference between honouring your emotions versus acting them out unhealthily," Quintero says. "I can feel rage, but that doesn't give me permission to express it in a way that harms me or those around me. What makes a human being healthy is the ability to cope with all our feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones."
One of the bastions of toxic positivity is the workplace. "If you open up at the office, you could risk losing face with those in power, you could risk losing your job," Quintero says. That said, the workplace is ripe for disruption. According to Long, recent research shows that when leaders don't embrace vulnerability, it leads to more silence and less risk-taking — not ideal for increasing productivity and satisfaction. And, yes, authenticity and vulnerability have to come from the top: "If the leaders aren't modelling that, their employees won't," she says.
You can always blame Silicon Valley, whose "yes culture" has gone global, Greene says. "Employment is generally so unstable, everyone has become obsessed with positivity as a way to survive." But a culture of consensus isn't necessarily best, as it prevents critical thinking. "Conflict can be constructive," she says. The good news is that, according to Greene, "millennial talent is not buying the big-tech work culture. We've been sold on sloganeering for a long time, but people are starting to call BS on it. Young people are taking a much more critical view."
Yup, the kids will save us. Greene foresees a gen-Z exodus from Instagram in order to protect their mental health. Their feeds are already full of candour. "They're 10 times more honest than me," Curtis says. "For them, social media is just an extension of who they are, it's not a mask," unlike those who had social media "imposed" on them. Long states that the only resistance she has received has been from baby-boomers, who "feel this is overly indulgent and we should just tough it out". It's their loss. "Discomfort is the price of admission to the meaning of life," David says. "Only once we've accepted our discomfort can true human change really happen." Go on, dare you.
How to be less TP
• Don't expect absolute happiness — it's more likely to be found in daily micro-experiences such as a hug.
• Own your emotions. Identify them, accept them and ask yourself what they are telling you.
• Aim for the middle path. Overidentifying your emotions might make you want to stay in bed all day, but don't dismiss them either.
• No need for drastic changes — tiny tweaks, such as an earlier bedtime or a necessary conversation, work better.
• Limit your exposure to toxic positivity. Modelling vulnerability will inspire more of the same.
Written by: Fleur Britten
© The Times of London