The Toxicity of Positivity Culture

By Molly Hannan Scott

“Good Vibes Only.” “Live Laugh Love.” “Keep Calm and Carry On.” All of these have been popular phrases stamped on everything from wall canvases to coffee tumblers, boasting a shining positive personality for whomever owns them. Influencers make careers of being “wellness coaches;” preaching the power of positive thought — while flooding our feeds with fake smiles, and photoshopped pictures.

Have you ever asked yourself though, is following any of that advice truly healthy?

With the “positive vibes only” rhetoric bombarding you on countless Instagram captions, home decor, DIY ideas, etc. people are constantly encouraged to stifle their emotions and bury their feelings for the sake of seeming as if they and their lives are positive, good, and ultimately desirable at all times. Not being true to your instincts and emotions doesn’t just feel like it’s bad for you, it is bad for you. Humans are complex cognitive and emotional beings, and we’re meant to feel the full range of feelings we’re capable of feeling.

Suppressing your emotions is called emotional avoidance and according to “Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good” by Noam Spencer Ph.D. of Psychology Today, avoiding a problem or negative emotion only prolongs the situation, and builds stress and anxiety. Prolonged emotional avoidance, especially if one has experienced trauma, can even have physical repercussions like IBS and cardiac disease.

So now we know that actively suppressing your emotions is harmful, I must also ask, is focusing on positivity and being happy all the time even beneficial?

According to a 2017 study by three universities including the University of Wales, overemphasizing happiness leads to more rumination of negative experiences and emotions, rather than increased happiness. So not only does obsessing over positivity and happiness not make you feel any happier, it can make you unhealthy. Not only that, but the idea of being able to choose happiness to make your life better and more fulfilling is harmful to those who cannot do so; who face the kinds of adversities mentioned above like depression and mental health issues, and/or systemic and systematic challenges or oppression. For those who face these issues, the fact that you aren’t able to make yourself happy with the power of thought like all the other shining faces on Instagram, is something that can bring you down even harder.

So if surrounding yourself with artificial beacons of happiness and well-being aren’t going to cut it, what will?

There are so many things that we can do to not only help ourselves be more content with life, but that honor our true emotional state and meet us where we are in the moment. The first (big) suggestion I make to pretty much everyone is to invest in therapy! Instead of spending money on cute decor and accessories that emblazon your positivity for everyone else to see, spend those dollars on something that actually helps you. Talking about your problems with someone else will make them even easier to face in your head and on your own. And not all therapy has to be ridiculously expensive; we live in a time where mental health services are being offered through many community resources they weren’t before.

Some other things we can do to help ground ourselves, practice mindfulness, and to help ourselves are usually things that feel hard to do, but involve even less effort than finding a new “Good Vibes Only’ flask online. Take a simple bath or shower - let the water run over you and breathe in the steam deeply; you don’t need bubbles, a bath bomb, or candles. Stand outside in the sun; you don’t even need to change out of your pjs, (but changing your clothes and putting on an outfit you like can help too!). Turn on a movie or show that always makes you laugh, even if you don’t feel like paying attention. Brush your teeth and wash your face, cold water will help you wake up a bit and you’ll feel clean. Stay away from alcohol and other mind-altering substances if you’re really in it; you might feel like they’ll give you some relief for a while but when it fades, you’re back where you were. Instead, put something yummy in your body that’s easy to make. Chop up an apple, eat some pasta and veggies, or go all out with comfort food!

If you feel like crying, then cry. If you feel like screaming, scream in your pillow, sometimes that’s what you need. You don’t need to get a manicure, get a facial, or go for a night out with friends; sometimes self-care is about listening to yourself.

I firmly believe that allowing ourselves to experience all of the emotions that accompany what we encounter in our lives makes us more well rounded, intelligent, creative, and self aware. Sometimes that means being wracked with pain and sobbing in your bed,  sometimes it’s talking yourself through a panic attack, sometimes it’s staying home to watch a movie after cancelling plans, and sometimes it’s laughing with your friends and snapping pictures. And all of those things are okay.

Sure, it’s fine to be an optimist, to see the cup half full; but to be realistic you have to acknowledge that there are a lot of things that the “power of positivity” cannot fix or even positively effect.

You cannot stamp “positive vibes”on social injustices and inequalities, white supremacy, racism, and discrimination, environmental devastation and global warming, or mental illness, all of which are rampant in our society. The culture cultivated around these  slogans promotes the exclusion of those who experience things that make them justifiably sad, those who are depressed, chronically ill, marginalized and oppressed, those who can’t put a happiness band-aid on their encounters and daily lives. Soliciting “positive vibes” and “love and light” is not what the world needs; instead, we need to be able to look inward, reflect, and learn to live with our feelings rather than exiling them.

Molly Scott