Illustration by Tim Chiu.

Could be Worse: The Culture of Toxic Positivity

Even if toxic positivity is easy to highlight and avoid on a personal level, it is so deeply rooted in our culture that we need to unlearn it if we are to help the people in our lives.

Sep 26, 2021

In this day and age, everyone is exposed to toxic positivity due to its omnipresence on social media. Every day, we encounter quotes highlighting how perfect life is and how we should always put on a smile, even if our problems deeply affect our mental health. We are told that nobody likes negativity, that we should learn to deal with our emotions on our own and not affect others.
We simply put on a smile and force ourselves to be happy, but is it the right thing to do? Imagine you just failed a test you studied for. You are feeling homesick. You are lying down on your bed scrolling through your Instagram feed when you notice a post saying, “University is the best time of your life, don’t throw it away!”.
You enter a moment of introspection based on that post, reassuring yourself that everything is fine, that your problems are just an exaggeration and the solution is simply to stop thinking about them. You stand up for yourself, go out with your friends, but you feel uncomfortable. You know something is wrong but you smile as if nothing is happening. Congratulations, you just invalidated your own negative emotions.
We define toxic positivity as the imposition of positive thoughts, no matter how we actually feel. Usually, this obsession is associated with forbidding ourselves from having any negative emotion (sadness, stress, worry or fear). In contrast to positive thinking, which is based on accepting the positive aspects of ourselves and the circumstances that surround us, toxic positivity is based on the notion that any emotion, other than happiness and gratitude, is unacceptable.
A toxic positive attitude can be trying to forget all our problems or minimizing them by telling ourselves that they are temporary, qualifying them as exaggerated or negative. On the other hand, a truly positive reaction might be to accept the situation, take a moment for ourselves or take action, if possible. Inherently, a positive attitude is not the problem, but rather the forcing of it in circumstances where we do not feel comfortable. In those moments, by forcing ourselves to “be positive”, we can risk our mental health in the long term.
Having established what we mean by toxic positivity, it is important to notice that when these attitudes are reproduced daily, they can have important consequences on our mental health. Suppression of our feelings can provoke anxiety, stress, low self-esteem or inability to regulate and express our emotions naturally. Not identifying toxic behavioral patterns like these can cause one to fall into the vicious circle of “meta emotion”, for example, feeling bad because we are feeling bad, which provokes more sadness or stress.
“Looking on the bright side in the face of the tragedy of dire situations like illness, homelessness, food insecurity, unemployment or racial injustice is a privilege that not all of us have,” said Dr. Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in an interview with the Washington Post. It is completely fine to always have a “positive” attitude. Nevertheless, it is only healthy when this is a natural reaction not compelled by social or personal pressure. A study directed by Dr. Bett Q Ford shows how our mental health can improve considerably merely by accepting our feelings. To do so, we have to stop categorizing our feelings as positive or negative and allow ourselves to simply feel them.
The reality is that a lot of quotidian phrases such as “everything is fine” or “it could be worse” are ways to invalidate someone else’s feelings. We all are guilty of having said those things at some point, even when our intention is not to do so. How then, can we help people without invalidating their feelings?
This question does not have a clear answer, since it varies from case to case. Of course, when our friends tell us about their problems, we wish to provide a comprehensive solution, but the most we can say is “everything is fine" and "all things must pass".
We all want to be or at least seem to be happy on the surface. We need to step back and understand and validate our emotions as well as those of others. We must understand that life is not always happy or inspirational and accept it as such.
Bruno Juarez is a Staff Writer. Email them at
gazelle logo