The Cult of Positivity

Quick Summary: Positive thinking can be helpful, but in our culture, positivity is often taken too far. Always embracing positive thinking can obscure, suppress, or invalidate other parts of the human experience, to our detriment.

We are told to stay positive. I’m trying to keep a positive mindset. I’m just trying to be positive about it. I hear this a lot, and often, being positive is a helpful strategy for getting through difficult times. But what if something isn’t positive? What about when things just kind of, well, suck?

Being positive is not an inherently bad thing. But I find there is tremendous pressure to always be positive, and consistently try and look on the bright side. And while sometimes this can be helpful, sometimes this can also be deeply invalidating. When we tell others or tell ourselves to be positive about something, we are also invalidating an huge part of the experience of being a human. Sometimes, we feel sad, or disappointed, or angry, or frustrated or let down. These are normal human emotions.

Constantly striving to maintain a positive mindset may lead to the suppression or denial of negative emotions. While it’s important to cultivate optimism, it’s equally important to acknowledge negative emotions such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. Because we recognize these emotions are uncomfortable, we generally run from them. In the process of running and hiding, we give them power over us. Moreover, when we are told we need to be positive all the time, and then are not (because we are human), we feel (or are made to feel) like we are somehow a failure, or deficient, or that that it is our fault that we are upset.

Excessive emphasis on positivity can lead to a dismissal or invalidation of genuine concerns or hardships. This phenomenon, known as toxic positivity, can create an unrealistic expectation to always be happy, which can be invalidating for individuals facing difficult situations or struggling with mental health issues. The reality is that our emotions are constantly changing, and whatever we are feeling at this moment will change. When we live in accordance with reality, we suffer less.

When we are relentlessly positive, it becomes hard to acknowledge problems. Acknowledging problems, and exploring them, is the first step in problem-solving. But before we can work on making things better, we need to be able to focus on the fact that a problem actually exists. A sole focus on positivity may hinder these efforts. Instead of addressing challenges head-on, we may adopt a passive approach, assuming that a positive mindset alone will resolve all difficulties. We refuse to see or acknowledge problems because we don’t want to be labeled as “negative.” We somehow convince ourselves that acknowledging problems is somehow the same as being consumed by problems.

If we disregard problems because we want to “stay positive,” we also disregard the need for self-care. Constantly striving for positivity may overshadow the need for self-care. Neglecting self-care practices or failing to address personal boundaries and limitations can lead to burnout and compromise overall well-being. Unfortunately, as our well being suffers, we feel even more pressure to “stay positive.”

There are real benefits to be positive, to putting a brave face on adversity, and in being an optimist (I’d count myself in the latter category). This caution against positivity is reaction to a delusion in our culture that things should some be always positive. Or related, that positivity is an antidote for everything, rather than one characteristic to keep in balance among many others.

This is an argument for balance, for seeing the world as it is. Very few things are black and white— most have elements that are great, and elements that are not. The harm comes when we refuse to see the difficulty of life, because we somehow believe that everything is supposed to somehow be positive.

-Dr. Justin