What distinguishes good positivity from unhelpful positivity?
Positivity involves things like gratitude, optimism, and positive reappraisal. You may have heard that positivity is good for well-being. On the flip side, maybe you’ve felt annoyed, angry, or uncomfortable when positivity was forced on you. Indeed, positivity can be good for well-being…as long as we’re not using it to avoid or suppress negative emotions. Then, it can be unhelpful, or toxic.
I prefer the term unhelpful positivity to toxic positivity… we live in a society that likes to paint things black or white, right or wrong and it’s often not helpful. Asking yourself whether positivity in this moment is helpful or not, keeps you true to what’s arising for yourself or the other person. When you’ve felt the (negative) feeling and are ready to let it go, positivity is very helpful.
Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist (Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020).
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish positivity from toxic positivity. For example, if someone tells us, “Hey, look at the bright side,” we might feel like they are diminishing or denying our negative feelings. Because negative emotions are signals that some important needs aren’t being met, we don’t just want to shove them away without acknowledgement. So, seemingly positive advice from friends can often feel like toxic positivity to the person receiving it.
Here are a few more examples where positivity isn’t helpful:
- I say: “I’m having a bad day.” Unhelpful response: “But you have so much to be grateful for.”
- I say “I don’t know if I can have a relationship with my sister. She doesn’t treat me with decency and respect.” Unhelpful response: “She’s family. You should love her no matter what.”
- I say: “This job sucks.” Unhelpful response: “You’re lucky you even have a job.”
In these examples, someone is trying to use positivity to get rid of our true or negative experiences when we’re not ready for that.
On the other hand, say a friend tells us, “Hey, it’s okay not to be okay.” This shows acceptance of our negative emotions as well as compassion and gratitude. This approach is not toxic because it doesn’t deny our emotions and force us to feel something we don’t want to feel.
When Does Positivity Become Unhelpful or Toxic?
- One study showed that looking for silver linings 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—or situations that we could change—we might actually be worse off (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013).
- 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).
- If people encourage us to use a specific 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. 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).
- 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). So, too much positive emotion actually can be a bad thing, although most of us are not in danger of being manic.
- 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 for happiness tends to be bad for our mental health. It’s normal and natural to have emotional ups and downs, and better to focus on self-acceptance and wholeness than happiness.
Positivity can be tricky. The benefits of positivity are very real and impactful when used at the right time, but it can be easy to get positivity wrong. Hopefully, the guidance here will help you take what you can from the field of positivity psychology, while being able to prevent positivity from becoming unhelpful.
- Ford, B., & Mauss, I. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 363–382). Oxford University Press.
- Ford, B. Q., & Troy, A. S. (2019). Reappraisal reconsidered: A closer look at the costs of an acclaimed emotion-regulation strategy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(2), 195-203.
- Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: Too much of a good thing? Emotion, 8(1), 23–33.
- Perez, C. R., & Soto, J. A. (2011). Cognitive reappraisal in the context of oppression: Implications for psychological functioning. Emotion, 11, 675–680.
- Sokal, L., Trudel, L. E., & Babb, J. (2020). It’s okay to be okay too. Why calling out teachers’“toxic positivity” may backfire.
- Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2013). A person-by-situation approach to emotion regulation: Cognitive reappraisal can either help or hurt, depending on the context. Psychological science, 24(12), 2505-2514.