Toxic Positivity: Definition, Research & Examples
What is toxic positivity? What distinguishes good positivity from bad positivity? And how do we make the most of positivity without it becoming toxic?
What Is Toxic Positivity? (A Definition)
Positivity involves things like gratitude, optimism, and positive reappraisal. All these things are good for well-being...until they aren't. If they are being forced down our throats or if we are using these strategies to avoid or suppress negative emotions, they can become toxic. Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist (Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020).
Toxic positivity versus regular positivity
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish positivity from toxic positivity. For example, if we approach a friend in need of their support because we’re going through a hard time and they tell us, “Hey, look at the bright side.” We might feel like their response is diminishing, denying, or encouraging us to suppress our negative feelings. Feeling like we can’t be ourselves can be bad for our well-being, as can suppression. And often, negative emotions are tools we use to get important needs met so we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgement and acceptance. So, seemingly helpful advice from friends can often feel like toxic positivity to the person receiving it.
On the other hand, say a friend tells us, “Hey, it’s okay not to be okay. I am here for you and grateful to have you in my life.” In this example, they are expressing acceptance of our negative emotions as well as compassion and gratitude, which are also types of positivity. This approach is not toxic because it doesn't deny our emotions and uses principles of positive psychology in the correct ways.
Toxic Positivity Examples
What makes positivity toxic is not the type of positivity. All types of positivity can be both helpful and unhelpful depending on the context. Here are examples of a few types of toxic positivity that people might express to us:
The general theme of toxic positivity is that someone is using positivity to cover up our true or negative experiences. It’s not that these toxic responses are bad advice, exactly. It’s just that they’re delivered in the wrong way at the wrong time. A better approach is to acknowledge and express empathy towards the person and only offer advice for creating a more positive mindset if we asked for that advice.
Video: The Shadow Of Toxic Positivity
What Is Toxic Positivity Culture?
In recent years, many organizations have been prioritizing their employees' happiness in an effort to boost productivity and increase employee retention. Although the intentions may be good, in these workplace cultures, you often hear things like, “Don’t worry, be happy” or “Positive vibes only.” These statements may create a culture of toxic positivity.
Currently, it’s unclear whether the workplace well-being movement is really working. That’s because people have important concerns and negative emotions related to work. Maybe they don’t get paid enough to support themselves. Maybe they work so many hours they have no social life or are burned out. Maybe their manager treats them like dirt. That’s why in the context of the workplace, positivity may have the potential to become toxic more easily. Employees are being asked to “be happy” and “work on themselves” without being able to address the causes of their unhappiness. And that’s never going to be good for well-being.
When Does Positivity Become Toxic?
Some research has started to look at the situations in which positivity might actually be toxic. It seems that there are several circumstances in which positivity is ineffective and may even be harmful.
Positivity can be toxic in controllable situations
One study shows that looking for silver linings (positive reappraisal) is only beneficial in uncontrollable contexts. For example, if we lose our job, we might benefit from thinking about our future opportunities. But if we try to use positive reappraisal in controllable situations, we might actually be worse off (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013). For example, if our boss is verbally abusive, we’d be better off transferring to another department than using positive reappraisal to find the silver linings.
The theory is that if we can solve the problem that is causing our distress, we should do so. If we instead opt to use positivity to just decrease the negative emotions (but leave the problem intact), then it’s still going to make us feel bad, and we’ll have to keep using positivity in what may become a pointless cycle that only makes us feel worse in the long run.
Positivity can be toxic is when our identity is threatened
Some research suggests that it is inappropriate to use positivity (positive reappraisal) when our identities are being threatened. For example, when people experience racial oppression, looking for silver linings appears to actually lead to worse well-being (Perez & Soto, 2011).
Positivity can be toxic when we’re not good at it
If people are encouraging us to use an emotion regulation skill that we’re not good at, it could actually leave us worse off. And for many people, positivity can be a difficult skill to develop and implement. It requires cognitive resources and may rely on past practice (which we don’t all have). So if you’re not good at being positive, optimistic, or reflecting on your situation to find the silver lining, it could actually be bad for you (Ford & Troy, 2019).
Positivity can be toxic when we have too much of it
Most people think of positive emotion as a good thing, and more is better, right? Well, it turns out that too much positive emotion may actually be a bad thing. Too much positive emotion has been shown to be a risk factor for mania (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008). Indeed, mania is characterized by extreme positive emotions. The lack of inhibition that comes with positive emotions can also lead those in mania to make poorer decisions. So too much positive emotion actually can be a bad thing.
Positivity can be toxic when we’re obsessed with it
Being obsessed with happiness and focusing excessively on getting happy has also been shown to be bad for well-being (Ford & Mauss, 2014). It’s thought that this may create a discrepancy between how we feel now and how we want to feel. Indeed, having ultra-high expectations that we can’t reach tends to be bad for our mental health.
Toxic Positivity Ted Talk: How Toxic Positivity Can Lead to More Suffering
Positive Psychology vs Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity may be an unintended side effect of the positive psychology movement. In short, positive psychology is the study of what makes life worth living. It includes things like happiness, optimism, hope, and creativity (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).
The discipline of positive psychology emerged in response to the general tendency in the field of psychology to focus on the negative—things like treating depression, anxiety, etc... But with positive psychology, the pendulum may have swung too far. Instead of focusing entirely on decreasing negative emotions and problems, positive psychology focuses entirely on increasing positive emotions and outcomes. As a result, it can sometimes feel like it’s missing something essential—that negative emotions exist and often need to be worked with in order to benefit from positive psychology techniques. Generally, we need to work on both positive and negative emotions to be happier.
It’s not that positive psychology is toxic, per se. It’s based on good research showing that things like optimism, love, and gratitude are good for mental health and well-being. But, being as it’s a young field of research, it’s still missing some of the nuance necessary to be as beneficial as it could be.
For example, it’s rare that positive psychology research discusses situations where positive psychology might not be a good choice. But initial research has shown some times when using positive psychology techniques is not beneficial—like in response to the death of a loved one (Bonanno & Burton, 2013). Other studies that we talked about above show that positive reappraisal is not always beneficial (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013). So, the research is just now starting to identify the situations in which positivity can become toxic.
How to Deal With Toxic Positivity
So how do you deal with toxic positivity? How do you make sure that you’re making use of the benefits that positivity can bring? How do you make sure positivity doesn’t become toxic for you? Here are a few ideas based on the research.
1. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a technique that involves “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat‐Zinn, 2003). Practicing mindfulness can be a good way to stop avoiding or suppressing negative emotions. The goal with mindfulness is to be aware of the truth of what’s happening and what you are experiencing and then choosing to accept those emotions as they are.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to accept situations as they are. For example, mindfulness is not about accepting another person treating you badly. In this case, it would be about accepting your emotions of having been treated badly, acknowledging that those emotions are normal, and not judging yourself for having those emotions. Learning to cultivate awareness and acceptance of negative emotions rather than cramming them down or shoving them away with positivity is a good first step to avoiding toxic positivity.
2. Cultivate self-compassion
Part of what can be dangerous about positivity is the expectations that it creates. For example, you might have unrealistic expectations that you should be positive all the time, be thankful for everything, or always be in a good mood. That’s a huge amount of pressure to put on yourself and if you fail, it might even start to hurt your self-esteem.
That’s why self-compassion can be a good antidote to toxic positivity. Don’t forget to be nice to yourself and be compassionate with yourself when you are having negative emotions or going through hard times. No one can be positive all the time. It’s completely normal and healthy to have negative emotions. And there is no need to be so hard on ourselves for feeling bad sometimes.
3. Don’t discount negative emotions
It turns out that even though negative emotions feel bad, they do us a lot of good. Anxiety can help us be more prepared and anger can help us rectify injustice. Embarrassment can help motivate others to forgive us and sadness can motivate others to help us more (Keltner & Kring, 1998). When we shove our negative emotions down, we fail to get the benefits they provide at times when we are in most need of those benefits. It’s no wonder excessive positivity can be toxic.
Toxic Positivity Quotes
More Articles Related to Toxic Positivity
If you want to keep learning skills that can help you use positivity in ways that are beneficial while also acknowledging and accepting your negative emotions, here are a few more good articles to check out.
Books Related to Toxic Positivity
These books may be helpful in your continued exploration of toxic positivity:
Final Thoughts on Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity can be tricky. The benefits of positivity are very real and impactful, but at the same time, it can be easy to get positivity so wrong that it becomes toxic. Hopefully, the guidance here will help you take what you can from the field of positivity psychology while still being able to prevent positivity from becoming a hazard.