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Ever have someone tell you to “just stay positive” after you’ve shared your struggles with them? Chances are, it didn’t make you feel much better — and maybe even a little bit worse.

Happiness is often seen as a personal choice in today’s world, and therefore, we’re responsible for keeping any negative emotions in check. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t wired to work this way when we're struggling, which is why trying to adhere to the “good vibes only” approach to life can have the exact opposite effect on our mental health.

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What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the widespread belief that people should maintain a positive mindset no matter how difficult the situation they’re in and that any negative emotions should be suppressed. Supposedly, this “keep your chin up” attitude is for the benefit of the person who is in turmoil. In reality, however, that party benefits very little from it because it encourages them to suppress emotions for the comfort of others.

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How did the toxic positivity trend start?

Toxic positivity in its current form is a relatively new phenomenon, coinciding with the rise of mental health awareness on social media in recent years.

A negative attitude is associated with depression and poor mental health. Not only that, "uncomfortable" emotions like grief, fear, and sadness makes the person experiencing them — and everyone around them — feel bad. Conversely, a positive attitude is associated with strong mental health and success, and it makes everyone feel good — theoretically. Negativity affects people’s brains more strongly than positivity, so many see it as something to avoid at all costs. Psychologists refer to this as "negativity bias."

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What’s wrong with being positive?

While there certainly are benefits to remaining optimistic in the face of adversity, feeling pressured by others to keep up an artificially cheerful facade often makes people feel worse about their situation.

Supposedly helpful phrases like “look on the bright side” and “everything happens for a reason” can compound the hurt someone is feeling because it makes them question the validity of their emotions, and puts the onus on them to change their behavior. Meanwhile, the person giving the advice might receive praise for their well-meaning platitudes, raising their social standing.

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Why is toxic positivity so pervasive?

Negative emotions are difficult to sit with, and because people are naturally drawn to positivity over negativity, that “good vibes only” messages thrive on social media.

Studies show that the more positive feedback a social media user receives from their posts, the more feel-good dopamine receptors their brains fire off. For that reason, you could say toxic positivity is more for the benefit of the person sharing it than their intended audience.

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How is toxic positivity harmful?

When people push positivity-at-all-costs as the only way to get through emotional pain, the person in pain is left asking, “what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be happy like them? I must be doing something wrong with my life.” They now have feelings of shame and guilt piled upon an already distressful situation.

This can prevent them from addressing the underlying cause of their distress and keep them from seeking help.

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Why is toxic positivity overlooked?

If someone tells you to “put on a happy face,” it’s hard not to believe they have your best interests at heart.

Even our employers are in on cheering us up for the greater good, hiring “chief happiness officers” and encouraging self-care. Self-help sections are flooded with books on how to be happier, and we even rank countries on a Global Happiness Index.

But even though we place positivity on a pedestal, Americans are sadder and lonelier than ever before, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report. Maybe all this forced “happiness” is making us more miserable than we realize?

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What are the signs of toxic positivity?

Identifying toxic positivity is tricky because it masquerades as support, kindness, and sage advice. None of these examples are always toxic, but they can be when expressed flippantly as an alternative to actually listening to and attempting to help a person in pain.

  • Minimalizing and undermining your emotions. ”You’ll be fine!”
  • Negativity shaming. “Stop being so negative!”
  • Making guilt-inducing comparisons. “Look how good you have it!”
  • Making you feel like you have to conceal your feelings. “Stop worrying about it!”
signs of toxic positivity John Rensten / Getty Images
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What are signs of healthy positivity?

Unlike toxic positivity, healthy positivity builds you up with validation and hope.

  • “All vibes are welcome here.”
  • “This is hard, but you’re a strong person and I believe in you.”
  • “It’s not easy to see the good in this situation. We can make sense of it all later.”
  • “A lot could go wrong, but what could go right?”
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How to protect yourself from toxic positivity

When you’re feeling down, the last thing you need to hear is another tired cliche. The best course of action is to avoid people who are dismissive and unhelpful, and instead open up to the people who will actively listen, acknowledge your pain without judgment, and offer the validation and hope you need to move forward. These are usually also the people who will recognize if your negativity has taken too firm a hold and encourage you to seek help.

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Healthy ways to cope with negative emotions

  • Distraction. Negative thoughts tend to spiral, so keep your mind focused on mentally stimulating activities.
  • Expression. Channeling your emotions into creative expressions such as art, journaling, dancing, and singing is a coping strategy as old as humanity itself.
  • Exercise. Countless studies have shown that exercise offers a significant therapeutic benefit for symptoms of depression.
  • Some people find sitting with their negative emotions and exploring their sadness can help. This is important to do in moderation, however, and recognize honestly whether doing so is ultimately benefiting your mental health or making things worse.
Healthy ways to cope with negative emotions MundusImages / Getty Images

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.