How easy is it to cross the line between healthy optimism and toxic positivity?

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Channeling our positive thinking towards a healthy direction is the key to our wellbeing
“Don’t worry, be happy”: beware of toxic positivity!
February 10, 2021
Maria Chiara Venturelli

2020 has been “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, in the most literal sense.

No pun intended.

“Andrà tutto bene, everything is going to be alright”.

Italy was the first European country to have to deal with the virus, as banners with hopeful slogans were hanging from balconies spread across the land. Across the globe. All over the internet.

Needless to say,

Said slogans did not age well.

If at the beginning of the pandemic we were overwhelmed by the unprecedented situation, we are now completely exhausted. After one year of global health crisis and countless lockdowns, all that is left of this optimism, is a series of meaningless mantras playing on repeat in the back of our minds.

It goes without saying: as human beings, we all need hope to deal with difficult times.

However…

Keeping it healthily positive and feeling like we need to have a positive outlook on life at all costs, are not the same thing: we can approach them as two different directions in which we can channel our positive energies, each of them with contrasting consequences.

To sum up, the situation had us wondering:

How can we distinguish these two directions?

Do we need to have a positive outlook on the reality of things?


1. We need hope and positivity, but not at all costs

Sometimes positivity can be channelled in an unhealthy way.

It is the case of “toxic positivity”.

Toxic positivity? Can I eat it?

Well, no.

This term indicates a superficially positive attitude which differs from the previously mentioned authentic positivity: it perpetuates the idea that well-being can be reached through the dismissal of negative feelings.

It is an oversimplified approach to human complexity.

“Good vibes only”, “Hakuna matata”, “Are you sad? Try not to think about it!”.

Sure. At what cost?

If healthy positivity allows us to acknowledge and process our feelings, at the opposite side of the spectrum there is the suppression of them, while pretending that everything is going to go for the best, no matter the circumstances: a behaviour which has been proven to be toxic for our mental health.

In fact…

Inhibiting emotional expressive behaviour does not provide relief from experiencing negative emotions.

Biologically speaking…

Our emotions are natural reactions to the stimuli of the environment surrounding us.  

As a consequence, the inhibition of such feelings has relevant consequences for our emotional experience and behaviour: shutting a door does not mean that what’s behind it is going to disappear and bottled up negative emotions are likely to escalate beyond our control. 

In short,

The repression of negative emotions is unnatural and conflicts with our well-being: it is not likely to make us feel better.

2. Toxic positivity can lead to social isolation

Self-tricking ourselves into thinking that “everything is going to be fine” can reflect negatively on our relationships.

The one which is immediately affected, is the one with ourselves: we create a toxic environment based on unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve and of what the future has in store for us while we refuse to acknowledge the limits and negative sides of our current situation. 

As a consequence, this reflects negatively on the one we have with other individuals.

This happens for two main reasons.

First of all...

In 1872 Darwin noted that the acknowledgement and communication of negative feelings is essential to functional social relationships. We, as individuals, rely on our peers’ social emotional expressions to receive information about their needs, feelings and preferences.

How can we engage in corrective behaviours if the individual we interact with does not even acknowledge his anger or discontent?

This is why…

Where there is toxic positivity, we prevent ourselves from acknowledging negative feelings: Therefore, we are leading the way to the creation of potentially toxic relationships.

Secondly...

When we do not address our own negative emotions, we might tend to delegitimize the feelings of anxiety and fear of the other individual in the same way we do with ourselves.

What does it mean?

When we belittle people’s worries and emotions due to such toxic attitudes, other individuals might not perceive our company as a safe space anymore. 

1. Healthy optimism sets realistic expectations:

Authentic positivity is more than slogans and hashtags. It is genuine and grounded in reality.

It allows us to keep a positive outlook of things, while acknowledging negative feelings as well as uncomfortable situations. 

And, if possible, to take action on them.

How?

Our feelings can be a fertile ground on which we can build up a more optimistic approach to life, while validating our own inner self, including our own negative emotions.

How can we change our current mindset if we do not acknowledge its current lights and shadows?

Moreover…

According to the Positive Psychology Summit, healthy positivity is about building up self-confidence and strength by finding purpose. Martin E.P. Seligman, founder of the Summit, said "I like the idea of behaviour leading toward a goal."

In short, it is based on the set of experiences which lead us on the path of deep life satisfaction: it goes beyond the mere “happy talk” and addresses our inner strengths, to develop our confidence and ability to be resilient during challenging times.

2. There is a connection between positive thinking and health benefits.

Positive thinking has a positive impact on your physical health.

For instance…

A study offered evidence of a cross-sectional association between cardiovascular health and an optimistic attitude: participants who displayed a higher degree of optimism were less likely to develop heart health issues: their cholesterol level and blood pressure were lower than their least optimistic counterpart.

Is there more?

Yes. In 2014, a University of Quinsland study proved that a positive attitude plays a prominent role in the process of ageing while preserving health.

The participants in the study were 50 “over 65” individuals, who were shown both positive and negative images.

The ones that afterwards recalled more positive than negative pictures had a higher level of antibodies in their blood and a better immune system, compared to those who focused mostly on the negative information.

As a consequence…

It can be concluded that a positive attitude can be linked to a boost to our immune system.

A positive approach to life is necessary to our well-being, since it is likely to bring along health benefits and to help us find purpose while directing our energies towards productive endeavours.

However, we need to be careful with channelling this positive energy in the right direction and avoiding falling in the pit of toxic positivity, since the dismissal of our own feelings is unhealthy both for us and for our interpersonal relationships.

A question for you:

In your life you surely have met many individuals who had different upbeat approaches to life. Can you draw the line between the moments they had a toxic positive behaviour and the ones in which they displayed a healthy one?

Disclaimer: We are by no means supporting one side of the argument over the other. We collate different views and expand on them to give you a better understanding of the motivation behind these views.
Photo by Binti Malu from Pexels, Darwin. C. ( 1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: Murray.
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