Positive Psychology VS Toxic Positivity

Zoe Fragou
June 11, 2022

People have always been wondering what happiness is.
Is it fulfilling your dreams and goals?
Is it being free to decide for yourself?
Is it the constant emotion of cheerfulness and perkiness?

According to the Oxford dictionary, happiness is:

  • a) The state of feeling or showing pleasure
  • b) The state of being satisfied that something is good or right

Is it so simple though? And if it’ s so simple, what’s holding us back?

Despite the many riches and opportunities of the modern world, there are of course many challenges and sometimes these can feel overwhelming.

We’ve had a lot to deal with recently so it’s no great surprise that increasing numbers of us suffer from anxiety and feelings of emptiness and sadness.

The financial crisis of the previous years, the pandemic, the war, the general social and political instability are of course circumstantial factors that contribute. Even social media have played a significant role in the depression and alcoholism rates’ increase in the last years (Brunborg & Andreas, 2019).

On the other side, the very same years another strong movement started evolving, that of positive psychology.

The general concept of positive psychology could be narrowed down to the motto ‘always look on the bright side’, always searching for the opportunity hiding in the crisis. If something has been bad for you, think of how you can turn it into a positive experience instead. Being optimistic is of course not only healthy, but also a skill contained in the Emotional Intelligence skill set. Therefore, by default, being optimistic could never mean ignoring your negative emotions and acting positive no matter what is going on. It means that you are able to recognise your emotions, embrace them and manage them towards a more positive angle, as a result of your values- driven approach in life and your general self- awareness.

However, many are those who exploited this approach, maximized the theory and pulled the basic principles so much to their edges, that we now can talk of a toxic positivity movement instead. This trend is upcoming, powerful, and extremely dangerous for our mental and emotional health, especially during corona times.

For example: do any of the following mottos ring a bell?

– Don’t get depression! Be productive! You are in charge of your life! You can do everything!

These are just a few of the mottos you’ve been hearing and reading everywhere during the last months. One can say they’ re inspirational, but the truth is that they’ re much more than that. They take away all context factors and leave you alone with your personal responsibility. But luck isn’t zero sum. The society we live in, isn’t zero sum. When you are made to believe that you hold all the power, you have total control, how are you going to feel once something turns out wrong, even if you had done everything right? Let’ s take as example the confinement. The concept that quarantine is almost like paid leave and therefore you should make the most out of it, managed to produce more guilty- full people than the corona itself. Guilty people who always feel that they aren’t doing enough, they could be doing more. At one point, after all these webinars, zoom, online gym classes, teams- meetings, I bet you started feeling like it’s your fault for not having learnt mandarin during quarantine. The time was there, what did you do to waste it? Why were you tired or demotivated? Since you have all the control, all the power, why weren’t you business as usual?

The truth is that the pandemic is a universal crisis with incalculable yet effects on the humankind. It’ s stressful and harsh. There are people during the confinement that are not able to visit their parents. People that have not seen their friends for months. People who lost their jobs, people who lost people.  All of us are wondering, when are things going back to normal, but no one knows. And that agony, that constant fight or flight mode, is confusing and requires energy. Energy to get up and wear clothes, even if you’ re going nowhere. Energy to stay realistically optimistic and to figure out a strategy to survive with minimum casualties at all levels. Energy to keep healthy, not only physically but also mentally. And that’ s why you didn’t learn mandarin. And that’s why you have nothing to feel bad about. The bar was raised to an abnormal level, no man could ever reach, without paying the repercussions afterwards, with breakdowns – burnout – post quarantine minor depression episodes.

No matter what we do, the amount of happiness can never match the amount of sadness we will experience. Firstly, the biggest joy one can have, for example the day of their marriage, can never match the intensity and the depth of the greatest sadness one can experience, like losing a child. Secondly, most of the biggest joys in life come alongside with great pain, like the miracle of birth. We are only able to experience the joy of this event, after it has finished, never simultaneously. So how can some people be happy, even though there is no obvious reason to? How can some people identify with Milan Kundera, and embrace the unbearable lightness of their existence, even laugh at it, in a world that makes more sense to be viewed in a cynical perspective? The truth is that more and more scientists have concluded that happiness is mostly a matter of choice (Schwartz, B. & Ward, A., 2002). Every time we wake up, we need to take the active choice of turning towards the light instead of the darkness, stand for health instead of illness, make the painful difficult decision to stand up from the bed, and live the best possible futile life we can, partly contributing to reduce the other people’s lives’ futility, hoping that they will do the same for us too. To quote BoJack Horseman: ‘in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make’.

Life is already hard and challenging for all of us. There’s  no reason for us to be hard and challenging on ourselves and one another as well.

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