toxic positivity: how happiness becomes a burden
Americans can be utterly befuddling to most of the world, and no trait of theirs is as confusing to foreigners as their optimism. It’s not that other nations and cultures don’t have optimism or hope, it’s that Americans take it to a level that verges on pathological, turning a sunny outlook on life and turning it to eleven. Every problem is an opportunity, everything will be resolved if it’s enough of a problem, and even life-threatening illness becomes “a chance to learn what’s really important.” If that sounds unhealthy to you, researchers studying this subject agree.
When considering the dynamics of happiness and how it can turn into misery, three key things are in play. The first is that we tend to overestimate the likelihood of good things happening to us while underestimating the probability of bad things hitting us like a two by four between the eyes. We assume that someone will come to our rescue, or we won’t end up like those facing genuine hardship, and when we end up in dire straits, we wonder how this could’ve happened to us despite the obvious reason being that it could.” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>
The second component is that we’ve effectively demonized pessimism and doubt across much of popular culture, replacing it with “positive visualization” or “the law of attraction” from the world of MLMs and alternative medicine, also known as prayer or wishful thinking to those of us with a critical mindset. Think happy thoughts and imagine that good things will happen to you, and then they just magically will, say the gurus of this nonsense popularized by pyramid schemes like Amway, and daytime television personalities like Oprah and Dr. Oz.
The final factor is that at the same time, we keep ridiculing pessimists and realists aware that life is not all champagne and roses, and made being happy a goal in and of itself despite the simple fact that humans are simply not wired to be happy all the time. We can be content for a really long stretch, but if we try to keep our brains running on happy thoughts, we just run out of dopamine and serotonin, then feel miserable that we’re not happy like the TV tells us we’re supposed to be. And thus, we arrive at toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is the pursuit of perpetual happiness while ignoring negative aspects of life with empty platitudes and meaningless affirmations, failing because this is a downright impossible, self-destructive endeavor, then feeling depressed because you’re not happy and fell like you can’t ask for help as not to admit your failure. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to depression, self-neglect, and dangerous denialism, and it’s difficult to break in a culture which demands that a permanent grin of psychotic joy is stapled to your face or you’re “just too negative.”
And this is especially awful when things around you are objectively terrible and are in dire need of immediate fixing. You can even argue that this pursuit of happiness no matter what has led far too many people toward downright malicious causes out of sadness, boredom, and a search for purpose and belonging that finally gives them some measure of joy. It’s why conspiracy cults like QAnon “love bomb” new arrivals and help them forge a new identity in which demanding, supporting, and doing ridiculous or awful things injects them with a happiness placebo.
Of course, there’s got to be a better way to get out of this trap than join a cult, try to overthrow a government, or show up at school board meetings to accuse teachers of molesting and eating kids Satanic Panic style, right? Thankfully, according to researchers there is, and the first step is to stop trying to be happy. It may sound counterintuitive but that’s the thing about happiness. As already established, you won’t be able to feel it all the time because that’s just not how your brain works. Instead, you should focus on purpose and contentment.
According to recent studies, what ultimately makes us happy is exploring, learning, and helping others. Volunteer work, creative pursuits, educational endeavors, and civic engagement meant to address real problems and make our communities better is what tends to make us feel at our happiest and most empowered. Just like with so many things in life, getting the basics right and focusing on discipline and doing the right thing instead of cutting straight to the goal by any means necessary tends to get us to that goal much faster and more effectively.
The other important step to being happy more often is understanding your own emotions and learning how to use them. Admitting that the marketing of Happiness, Inc. is a scam, and that it’s normal to feel the full range of human reactions will be both liberating and empowering for the simple reason that sadness, anger, or frustration are all normal. And if you recognize them and think through them clearly, you can put them to good use, which will ultimately make you truly happier and healthier in the long run.