While a dose of optimism can be helpful, there is a dark side to positivity messaging – and we need to recognise it, write psychology researchers Mary Breheny and Octavia Calder-Dawe.
Positivity messages are everywhere – from simple exhortations to look on the bright side to more prescriptive advice to “think positive, be positive and positive things will happen”. Commands to “choose positivity” adorn cereal packets, structure workplace wellbeing initiatives and bubble up in social media feeds.
This messaging typically presents positivity as a simple choice, equally available to everyone. Once the positive attitude is installed (just “flick the switch!”), things will improve. There’s also a promise of self-improvement underpinning positivity messaging: think positive and you will be an improved version of yourself. And here’s the kicker: positivity isn’t just a commendable personal choice – it reassures and uplifts the people around you. Your attitude is implicated in the wellbeing of others too.
For these reasons, positive thinking is often presented as a common-sense, obvious good. Positivity is very hard to criticise. Those who question positivity are easily dismissed as negative people, drags and moaners yet to be transformed by the power of positivity. How could looking on the bright side of life be anything other than uplifting? But researchers (ourselves included) are beginning to question the positive effects of positive affect. While a dose of optimism can be helpful, there is a dark side to positivity messaging – and we need to recognise it.
Toxic positivity is the notion that positive thinking side-steps the reality of the situations that shape our emotions. Instead of acknowledging difficulties and expressing despair, people are advised to count their blessings and look for the silver lining in every cloud, no matter how dark that cloud might be. Unemployed? Think of it as a great opportunity to upskill and look for new challenges! Sick? An opportunity to reflect on one’s blessings. Grieving? Aren’t you lucky to have experienced love and attachment to others. Stuck in nightmare traffic? What a great chance to enjoy some “me time”.
Ironically, the weight of other’s expectations that we “look on the bright side” can make us feel worse, rather than better, about our lives. These social expectations layer disapproval onto situations of distress. Crucially, positivity messaging emphasises personal transformation, at the expense of social transformation. It focuses on each person alone, working to change themselves. To illustrate these ideas, we present two case studies where positivity has far from positive outcomes.
More than two decades ago, there was a turn in gerontology to positive ageing. This was promoted as a policy to improve older people’s lives and a life goal for older people themselves. It seemed progressive; it advocated for older people as active participants in our communities and recognised their many contributions. It acknowledged that older age might bring health challenges, but a positive experience of later life was a goal for all. Even in the context of decline and change, older people could have valuable and meaningful lives.
As uplifting and progressive as that sounds, it has a clear downside. Expectations for relentless positivity began to shape our own conduct and our judgments of others. In our research, older people who had little to be grateful for fell back on telling us they had a positive attitude to their suffering. This positivity imperative works powerfully to control older people, who are keen to avoid the stereotype of the grumpy older person, constantly moaning. In our research, older people judged others and pronounced “I’m not going to be like that when I’m older!”
The imperative to be positive appears democratic. In the same way we all get a vote, we all get the option to be positive about our situation. But obligatory positivity papers over profound differences in people’s lives. Positivity might be available to all, but we don’t all get the kind of life that might naturally lead to a sense of satisfaction. Being positive in the face of poverty, exclusion and ill health is profoundly different to being positive after decades of financial security and community connection.
Motherhood is deeply embedded with emotions and emotionality. Motherhood is often touted as one of life’s great joys, and mothers in particular are called on to personify happy maternal perfection: a good mother is a happy mother. At the same time, in Aotearoa, many pregnant people experience low mood, depression and anxiety, while suicide is acknowledged as the leading single cause of maternal death.
Our research suggests that mothers often feel a sense of duty to be positive, happy and to keep unruly feelings “in check” to ensure the wellbeing of children, to meet social expectations, and to avoid worrying others. Struggling to feel and appear happy left some “not feeling like a good enough mum” while simultaneously “feeling really guilty that this should be the best part of my life”. The mothers we spoke to found little space to express feelings of exhaustion, distress or grief. While grassroots advocacy is challenging this silence, the pull of positivity remains strong and can function to undermine, rather than build, a sense of community and connection with others.
Positivity reinterpreted – a failure of ambition?
Positivity has a dark underbelly that is clearly toxic on an individual and interpersonal level. It deflects attention from the inequity of the situations in which we live and calls on us to deny emotions of distress and dissatisfaction in favour of relentless optimism.
We see a broader social critique too: positivity is profoundly unambitious. Turning inwards to change one’s own attitude, rather than seeking to improve the world in which you live, encourages a depressing fatalism. If we believe that all we can control is the way we think about things, we are relinquishing our power to connect with others and make meaningful social change. We are left, instead, each tinkering alone with the minutiae of our own internal worlds, like rearranging tiny deckchairs on the Titanic of minds.
So, next time you’re asked to think positive, spare a thought for the value of negativity. Dissatisfaction and protest are vital collective emotions: they signal a commitment to strive for better circumstances rather than an attitude adjustment. Moreover, our agency is not limited to our mindsets. Much that drives us forward collectively is seeing what is not right in the world and seeking to up-end it. At its best, positivity is not an attitude to one’s internal world, but a belief in a better future for all.
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