There’s a reason we can barely scroll through our social media channels without hurtling eyeballs-first into a saccharine quote about happiness, an inspiring message or a motivational meme: positivity is powerful.
Often, holding onto even the tiniest threads of hope can help us pull through challenging thought spirals, moments of anxiety or difficult circumstances, even during a global pandemic. It’s comforting to know that after a period of low mood, the sky will clear and the sun will shine once more. Perhaps, we might think, I’m not as bad as my brain is making me out to be today. Perhaps life isn’t as catastrophic as it feels right now.
Conversely though, positivity isn’t the best way to help other people and can even have a damaging effect if they’ve come to you for support. The term 'toxic positivity' refers to the concept that focusing on so-called positive emotions and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions is the right way to live life.
It is often used to describe this kind of response – a sort of unintentional gaslighting – which, whether the individual realises it or not, ends up stopping someone short of expressing how they truly feel.
Natalie, 34, was so frustrated by the responses she got from friends when she spent two years trying to get a new job that she stopped telling them when she went for interviews at all.
"If I wasn't successful, they would say things like, 'There'll be an even better one just around the corner' or 'It's not so bad in the grand scheme of things'.
"But sometimes I hated my job so much, I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. And then I’d get phrases like, 'Oh well, it could be worse!' Or, 'If you just stay positive, you will get the job!' It’s just not how it works and there’s a dishonesty to it. It made me feel worse and I dreaded the responses so much I decided to keep everything to myself.
"I just wished someone could say, 'You know what, that really sucks'."
"He’s fine now but we went through six months of chemo and surgery and it was very traumatic," she tells Refinery29.
"I was blogging about it and talking about it all the time. A lot of people would say, 'It will be fine', 'Keep smiling', 'You’re an inspiration', and that’s not what I needed at the time.
"It just didn’t resonate at all, so I didn’t get anything from it, it wasn’t helpful, and it kind of made me feel bad for feeling bad.
"We were obviously worried and traumatised and depressed. That sort of response makes you want to justify why you’re feeling sad, and you kind of end up arguing with the person about why you should be feeling sad."
Scientist Fatima, 33, talks about a "weird cult" of toxic positivity in academia which she feels invalidates the toll that the work can take on an individual’s mental health.
"People just brush over all the negative and really emotionally draining aspects of the career path and only focus on how it leads to the good parts," she says.
"'Once you finish your thesis you’ll feel much more prepared as an academic', they’ll say, or, 'Funding is very competitive, just keep applying and you’ll get a grant eventually'.
"It makes me feel like I’m not meant to be on that career path since I don’t seem to be as accepting. It’s a lot of pressure and very lonely."
Meanwhile, influencer Jodie, 26, became frustrated by some of the responses she got when she was badly trolled online.
"It started when I did a show called Rich Kids Go Skint and people were saying all kinds of things to me online," she continues. "They were saying they wanted to punch me and slap me, they constantly criticised the way I look, the way I dress, said that I’m a spoilt brat and I have no clue about the real world.
"I think a lot of times friends just didn’t understand what being trolled feels like. You can try and focus on the positive but it will still drag you down, and bring on your anxiety.
"Sometimes I wish people would sit down and let me talk about why it gets me down, rather than trying to give me just positive, short answers."
You can't make someone feel happy if they do not by telling them to 'look on the bright side' or 'keep your chin up'.
The truth is, you can’t make someone feel happy if they do not by telling them to "look on the bright side" or "keep your chin up". You can’t rid them of their fears and problems by bombarding their WhatsApp with cute animal videos, although it may give them a short-term pleasure response. When people tell you how they feel, more often than not they want to have their feelings validated, their problems normalised, and to feel listened to.
Noel McDermott is a clinical psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience.
"The way we’re designed emotionally is to have emotions or not have them," he tells us.
"We can’t select which emotions we’re going to have. If we try to get rid of one set of emotions, we’ll get rid of them all and become numb to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. If you try to get rid of bad emotions, you damage your whole internal world.
"A good example of people who will typically try to only feel good feelings is someone who suffers from substance misuse. The effect of misuse on their happiness is short term, and it quickly starts to make them feel extremely bad."
Emotions, he continues, whether they are pleasant or not, give us lots of information very quickly about whether a situation is safe or not, whether to pursue something or to back off completely.
Instead of ignoring negative feelings, we should use our experiences to build resilience, so we are better able to cope with similar situations in the future.
Better wellbeing should not focus only on being happy, because it denies resilience-building experiences.
Noel McDermott, clinical psychotherapist
"Better wellbeing should include resilience rather than positivity bias [focusing only on being happy], because it denies resilience-building experiences.
"If you avoid feelings that challenge you – or encourage others to avoid them – you narrow the range of relationships you can have, and you narrow the life experiences you can have.
"Because we’re social animals, we work best when we have a group of people we can relate to intimately. The narrower the social range of people around us, the less healthy we are."
Dr Daria Kuss, an associate professor in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, is an expert in emotional psychology.
She talks about a psychological concept called 'limbic resonance', or the ability to mirror the feelings of another person in order to deepen our connection with them.
"Mirroring sadness with our own unhappiness helps people to feel understood and supported," she says.
"If you’re trying to help someone, the most important thing is not problem solving but listening attentively and mirroring.
"If they are miserable, then it means not undermining that experience, giving them your full attention and full acknowledgement of what they are feeling."
Makes sense, doesn’t it? So why are so many of us using these throwaway phrases of positivity, rather than a dialogue that would be more helpful?
Dr Kuss says that our own fear of negativity is a likely factor.
"We’ve learned to use those kind of phrases because it's an easy way out, and it stops us having to mirror another person’s unhappiness, so it allows us to induce a state of happiness in ourselves rather than feel what they are feeling."
And of course there’s that British stiff upper lip to contend with – that 'paint a face on it' attitude which can sometimes do as much harm as it can good.
"If we’re thinking about the queen, she’ll just deal with it and get on with it," Dr Kuss adds.
McDermott says many of us end up succumbing to toxic positivity because we are concerned about being responsible for someone else.
"I think a lot of this comes from people feeling overwhelmed," he adds.
"Instead, you might be a resource. Let's try and empathise with people. You listen nonjudgementally, you don’t try to problem solve and you talk about similar experiences or feelings instead.
"The majority of people I see as clients just need a damn good listening to. And nothing much more than that.
"It also helps to normalise their problems by relating to them and not making them feel strange for feeling sad," he concludes.
"It’s about supporting them in reducing the impact these problems have on their everyday life."