Toxic Positivity: Or Why Happiness isn’t Always a Good Thing

Positive Thinking is often a Band-aid on a bullet Wound

From : Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman

Barbara Ehrenreich tells us in her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America how when she got cancer everyone, from the doctors and nurses to her friends and acquaintances, tried to jump in and get her to see the positive side of things.

“Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

This is Toxic Positivity– a cancerous disease that has infiltrated all self-help advice, even supposedly scientific psychology, hospitals, businesses and everyone you know who has read one book on positive thinking a is now an expert on it.

Toxic Positivity as Bypassing

Toxic Positivity is a type of Spiritual Bypassing, but so common and dare I say it, so toxic, that it has its own entry.

Toxic Positivity is the constant shaming, the constant gaslighting of people suffering, where they are told that they have “attracted” their problems by their bad thinking patterns, and if only they started thinking positively their problems would go away. And even “scientific” doctors and psychologists keep repeating this idiotic theory based on the unscientific Law of Attraction.

Some examples:

  • You lost your job or have financial issues– “Oh look on the bright side” or “Be grateful for what you have” — You can be grateful for what you have and still feel sad
  • “Everything happens for a reason” — which is a very shitty thing to say to someone who had a serious accident or suffered a miscarriage.

  • “It’s all a part of God’s plan” — Looks like God is a real Asshole then [LINK]

Some more examples from a BBC article:

  • Being told to smile (even when you don’t want to)
  • Being told to ‘Think positive’ or ‘Be optimistic’
  • ‘Don’t be so negative’
  • ‘You have nothing to be stressed about’
  • ‘Other people in the world have it worse than you’
  • Hashtags on social media like #GoodVibesOnly or #PositiveVibesOnly.

Why Toxic Positivity is So Harmful

Toxic positivity tries to be helpful but all it does is act as a conversation stopper. It’s designed to shut down the conversation because the listener feels uncomfortable with negative feelings.

More than that, it’s a form of shaming — “Ooh, why are you feeling so negative, what did you do to attract this?”

“The core of toxic positivity is that it’s dismissive and it shuts down the conversation. It effectively says, “Nope, that feeling you’re experiencing, it’s wrong—and here’s why you should be happy instead.” It’s the exact opposite of what we want to do when people are in pain.”

Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by Whitney Goodman

Another great quote from the book Toxic Positivity:

“When we reinforce that some emotions are “bad,” we miss out on the closeness that develops through vulnerability. Sadly, positivity is often used as a weapon to diminish the experience of certain groups.”

No, the alternative is not Toxic Negativity / Cynicism

I don’t want to give the impression that whinging or moaning is “spiritual.” In fact, toxic negativity is more common in humans, and I suspect that toxic positivity rose as a counterpoint to too much cynicism in our society.

There is a general feeling of “Ooh, everything is fucked, it’s all the fault of the evil government / evil corporations / Liberals / Conservatives / Whatever”.

At one point, I used to love watching YouTube reviews of movies. Some commentators gave great breakdowns of why some movies worked and some didn’t. But I had to give it up due to the extremely negative slant. Which is because negativity gets more clicks/views and is rewarded more. At one point, I got the impression the video creators were looking for problems just for the sake of finding something to make fun of. And the videos stopped being fun as instead of learning something fun I was being forced fed rage-fest, and so I stopped watching them.

It’s the same with news: Modern news is a constant 24 hour shit-fest. It’s more like a religion or cult, where the goal is to bring the other side down and cheer your own tribe. And it doesn’t help that due to the rise of social media, news is now also driven by clicks and rage bait.

And this constant negativity does have an effect on us. The Gita and Yoga Sutras say we eat not only from our mouths, but from our eyes/ears and other senses as well. If we are eating shit from our senses, no wonder we feel mentally sick all the time.

My theory is that many people who are toxically positive are trying to fight the constant stream of cynicism and negativity in TV/Internet/Social Media/News, but end up going to the other extreme. The sort of bury your head in the sand and sing “Lalalala, I can’t hear you, everything is happy clappy in my life” school of philosophy.

But there are better alternatives to being either toxically positive or negative.

A Note on Post Traumatic Growth

I must mention Post Traumatic Growth, where one grows after a stressful time. But it has its issues, including the pressure to appear “to grow”.

I believe 100% in PTG and it is one of the cornerstones of my belief in the article on suffering, but I make 1 big distinction: This growth must occur internally, and after a period of reflection. Do not shame others to “grow” after a bad experience. Each one of us must make this realisation ourselves, and it can take years, even decades, before we can see the benefit suffering had for us.

A Spiritual Alternative to Positivity

One of the big lies pop psychology and the New Age movement has spread is that we need to be “happy clappy” all the time or we are not living our ideal life. But where the hell did this idea come from?

All the ancient religions and philosophies (that the New Agey types supposedly quote) never said we need to be happy. Instead, they said life is suffering.

Stoics: The Stoics taught us to accept life as it is, and realise the only thing we can control is our thoughts.

“And here lies the essential difference between Stoicism and the modern-day ‘cult of optimism.’ For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word, ‘happiness.’ And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances.”
― Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

To be happy, the Stoics say, we should focus on what we can control: our thoughts, judgments, and actions.

Stoics believed in living according to virtue, which meant our values (however we defined them).

Buddhism: The Buddha taught life is suffering but we could rise above this suffering by being present, mindful and by practising compassion.

Hinduism/Yoga: Says we are the One Spirit (Brahman) and have forgotten who we are. Awakening is remembering our true nature and living by it.

In the Gita, Krishna says we should not be like a tiny pond affected by the tiniest wind, but rather like the ocean.

I really love the Gita’s example, as even though storms and hurricanes may arise in the ocean, the whole ocean in itself remains calm.

Not just ancient philosophies but many modern authors have said the same thing:

Victor Frankl: In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Eckhart Tolle: In one of his videos, he said: “The goal of the universe is not to make us happy but to awaken us. We will continue to suffer as long as suffering is required to awaken us.”

Notice that none of the above does it say happiness is the goal? The goal of the spiritual life in all these traditions is :

  • To live a life in service of others
  • To live a life full of meaning through our values
  • To rise above the egoic/mental mind
  • To find meaning in suffering
  • To realise there is no joy outside of us

So I don’t know where this unhealthy focus on optimism/happiness came from, but it is not spiritual. It is yet another attempt by the ego to control the spiritual process.

Here is a quote from one of my favourite books, The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman:

…it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at the very least to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”
― Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

I wanted to end with a difference between toxic positivity and optimism. I read a lot of articles would couldn’t find anything I liked. Until I asked ChatGpt(an Artificial “Intelligence” program), and it gave me an excellent answer. Unfortunately, when I asked it for a reference, it gave me a made up article that doesn’t exist. So I don’t know where the AI got this from but it’s a great answer:

Toxic positivity and optimism are related but distinct concepts.

Optimism is a positive mindset that emphasizes hope and confidence in the future, even in the face of difficulties. It is a healthy and constructive mindset that can help individuals cope with stress and adversity.

Toxic positivity, on the other hand, is an excessive or insincere focus on positivity that ignores or invalidates negative emotions or experiences. It can be harmful because it denies the reality of difficult situations, dismisses the emotions of those who are struggling, and can create feelings of guilt or shame in those who are unable to maintain a positive outlook.

In other words, while optimism acknowledges and addresses challenges while maintaining a positive perspective, toxic positivity denies or minimizes challenges and invalidates negative emotions in favor of maintaining an overly positive outlook. It’s important to strike a balance between the two, acknowledging and processing negative emotions and challenges while maintaining a hopeful and optimistic outlook for the future.

Thanks, ChatGpt! I feel very optimisitic reading that!

Note: There is a follow up article about Toxic Negativity I recommend you read after this.

Read about more Traps on the Spiritual Path