Sick of the #grateful, 'good vibes only' crew? You're not alone — according to a new book, relentless positivity can be more toxic than you think. I'm in fashion at last, says professional grouch Jonathan Dean
At least four times a year somebody — let's call them a builder — bellows at me: "Cheer up, it might never happen!" There are few words that get me more worked up than that combo. "Presented by Vernon Kay" is another, but one learns how to avoid him. Look, I have a miserable face. It is just the way my mouth settles, like a shallow railway bridge. I never liked smiling in photos, so a glum expression is my comfort zone and, I guess, people think that yelling positivity at me will snap me out of it, turn my lemons into lemonade.
And what if I prefer lemons? Lemonade is sweet, sickly, fizzy, short-term and vulgar. Lemons? More versatile, applicable to more that is good in life, like fish and chips and gin and tonic. Put it this way: being sour (negative) is widely considered inferior to being sweet (positive), but in this world of endless disappointment isn't being relentlessly upbeat less a gorgeous horizon, more a road to nowhere?
Which brings me to Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, a new book by the American psychotherapist Whitney Goodman. It begins with the introduction, You Deserve More Than Just Good Vibes - and I've never been so hooked.
I speak to Goodman over Zoom. She lives in Miami, where her practice has been offering help to people who don't want to be told everything is great. Toxic positivity is the idea that, no matter how bad something is, the best way out of it is a positive mindset. Well, that sounds very American, you say, but it has also swarmed to Britain, thanks to the fact that on social media you get more likes for posts about life than death. Goodman herself is on Instagram and TikTok (@sitwithwhit) — a modern way of therapy, but where a strong dose of realism is needed most.
"When I first got on Instagram, I noticed there were tons of quotes that felt victim-blaming and inspirational," she says. "I thought, 'Wow, if my clients saw these they would feel really terrible.'"
She means "Live Laugh Love" dross such as "So many people have it worse. Be grateful for what you have!" Or "Your thoughts create your own reality", which is interesting for anyone on their 17th bad date of the week. She litters her book with examples — "Whatever you decide to do in life, make sure that it makes you happy!" being a vacuous nadir, given most people hate their job.
In one chapter Goodman looks at times when being positive can in fact be damaging, not just annoying. One woman came to see her after several miscarriages. "At least there are other ways to make a family," she had been told, but what she really wanted to hear was: "That is so painful." Not, as someone a couple of straps short of a straitjacket said: "Think positive and the baby will come."
Sometimes a spade must just be called a spade, not a super-shaped earth extractor. Goodman says this is particularly so with grief, where toxic positivity can shame people for being sad. You know, all that "they're in a better place!" guff …
"Feeling difficult emotion can help bring you to the other side," Goodman argues. Yes, but tell a happy-clapper they are too upbeat and they will tell you to not be so negative. "And that's testament to how much this has been drilled in," Goodman says. "The idea that positivity is key to everything. When you tell people it's not, it can be confusing. I have empathy for people who drank the Kool-Aid, since research shows that someone who thinks too positively isn't equipped to deal with challenges. What seems like a positive self-improvement quest goes awry when you are left feeling flawed and failed."
Which brings me back to me. This time last year my wife, Rosamund, got cancer. In her book Goodman talks of those with life-threatening illness told by others, "You need to have a good attitude to beat this!" Or, "You don't even look sick. You look great!"
Positive nonsense in a time of negative substance - and, of course, I said such things to Rosamund. It was new terrain. At one point she stared at me like I'd been lobotomised and said, "Just tell me it's s***." She was sent a lot of flowers, and flowers are odd. They remind you that things are better somewhere else but not for you right now. If I get ill, send me a bouquet of bones so I'll know that, actually, it could be much worse.
Rosamund is a positive person. Sure, given all I have said here, it does seem remarkable she married me, but this past year has only cemented my impression that the positive affirmation aphorism industry is run by soul vultures. A woman made of positive thoughts getting cancer really shows up how well that way of life works, whereas the negative lot, like me, don't get disappointment. As such, I stop being friends with anybody who says, "You're not unemployed but funemployed!" Not every turd can be polished.
Which brings us to kids, where the anti-positivity gang come up against the most opposition. After all, kids are meant to be endlessly encouraged.
"When I was growing up, all I was told was to be happy and positive," Goodman says when I ask how her book works with children. "And so the biggest thing we can do for kids now is to normalise that they're not going to feel happy all the time. We need to teach them that striving for happiness isn't always the goal."
Love it. At a family lunch earlier this year my son, Ezra, said: "Why does Dad always talk about dark things?" We had been chatting about balloons and I veered that into the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, but I'm just preparing them for life and, anyway, they have a balanced upbringing. Rosamund pops out the Lizzo bangers as I lie on the sofa staring into the middle distance, listening to Radiohead.
Just so we're clear, the alternative to "Cheer up! It might never happen!" is not to find happy people and show them photos of mass graves. It is a long way from negativity to sadism. Rather, we have to learn sometimes to say nothing at all. It is tricky when everyone loves their own opinion, but when you next see a friend who is sad, try not to say, "Time is a healer." Because, well, it isn't, is it?
Life is messy and the sooner you move away from thinking that we have to be positive all the time, forcing ourselves into phrases that can be framed and sold on Etsy, the happier you can feel. Not expecting much good to happen is a great way to live. It means that, when a sliver of light creeps in, it feels like a full week of sunshine.
Reclaim the complain!
Eight ways to moan effectively, according to the therapist and author Whitney Goodman
Complaining has a really bad reputation. Articles and gurus insist that too much complaining will "lower your vibration" and stop you from achieving your dreams, having friends and living the life you want. They suggest that you cut out negativity from your life, especially people who complain.
However, complaining is one of the main ways that we bond with others and create emotional connection. It's an effective way to share how you feel, connect and evoke empathy in the listener. Complaining does serve a real purpose in our lives, and once we discover how to integrate it effectively, great things can happen.
Dr Robin Kowalski, a prominent researcher of complaining behaviour, found that those who complain with the hopes of achieving a certain result tend to be happier. Complaining is most effective when the complainer:
● uses facts and logic;
● knows their ideal outcome;
● understands who has the ability to make it happen.
If you are able to identify these three things, your complaining is much more likely to feel useful and effective, while also leading to a better outcome.
1. Figure out the complaint. What is really bothering me?
2. Identify the goal.
a Are you trying to make someone aware of an issue?
b Do you want to enact change?
c Do you want to be heard?
d Do you want to be validated?
e Do you want advice?
3. Choose the right audience.
Who can help me with this? Is there anyone who would understand or relate? Don't always complain to the same people. Pick people who can actually validate you or help you with your goal.
4. Decide if it's worth it.
Think about the issues that are really important to you and focus on complaining in moderation.
a What will happen if I do complain about this?
b What will happen if I don't complain about this?
5. Validate that you may want to complain because you're looking for connection.
Is there anything else you can share to connect other than a complaint?
6. Write it down.
This can be especially helpful if you feel like it's hard to manage your complaints. Research shows that writing helps focus and organise experiences and leads to greater understanding of what happened and how to cope.
7. Be as direct about your issue as possible.
8. Remember that there are real inequities in the world.
People may call you "negative" or a "complainer" for bringing them up. There are people who have it worse. Keep talking about the issue and focus on your goal.
The goal is not to eliminate complaining from your life, rather to make it more effective and adaptive. When we complain effectively, we can achieve the closeness, support and change that we all crave.
Edited extract from Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, by Whitney Goodman (Hachette, $38). Available in NZ on January 25.