How to Avoid “Toxic Positivity” and Take a Less Direct Route to Happiness


Gabrielle Henderson / Unsplash, CC BY

The term “toxic positivity”Has received a lot of attention lately. Getting out of the “positivity movement” that we are starting to recognize while feeling happy is a good thing, overstating the importance of a positive attitude can backfire, ironically lead to more unhappiness.


  • Brock Bastien

    Professor, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

  • Ashley Humphrey

    Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Federation University Australia

Yes, research shows happier people tend to live longer, be healthier, and be more successful. Lives. And “very happy people” have more of these advantages than average happy people. people. But pursued in certain ways, happiness or positivity can turn toxic.

Our research, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology and involving nearly 500 people, was inspired by these seemingly inconsistent results – seeking happiness can be both good and bad for our well-being. Our goal was to find a key ingredient that makes positivity toxic.

Expect the best, feel the worst

Some studies have shown that when people place a high value on their own happiness, it can lead to less happiness, especially in contexts where they most expect to feel. happy.

This tendency to expect happiness and then feel disappointed or blame yourself for not feeling happy enough has been linked to greater depression symptoms and the deficits of well-being.

Like a cartoon line of Randy Glasbergen representing a patient confessing to his psychologist says it:

I am really really happy. But I want to be very, very, very happy, and that’s why I’m unhappy.

However, researchers have also observed when people favor behaviors that maximize the likelihood of their future happiness – rather than trying to directly increase their level of happiness “in the moment” – they are more likely to experience improvements (rather than deficits). ) of their level of well-being. being.

It may mean engaging in activities that provide a sense of accomplishment or purpose, such as volunteering or completing difficult tasks, or building daily routines that promote well-being.

This work suggests pursuing happiness indirectly, rather than making it the primary focus, could turn our pursuit of positivity from toxic to tonic.

The weather is beautiful outside. Why am I not happy? Unsplash / Ethan Sykes, CC BY

Valuing happiness vs prioritizing positivity

We wanted to find out what it was like to make happiness a central goal that backfires.

To better understand, we measured these two approaches to find happiness: valuing happiness versus prioritizing positivity.

People who value happiness agree with statements such as “I care about my happiness even when I feel happy” or “If I don’t feel happy, maybe something is wrong with me ”.

People who prioritized positivity agreed with statements like “I structure my day to maximize my happiness” or “I seek and nurture my positive emotions.”

We also included a measure of the extent to which people feel uncomfortable with their negative emotional experiences. To do this, we asked for responses to statements such as: “I see myself as a failure in life when I feel depressed or anxious” or “I love myself less when I feel depressed or anxious”.

People who expected to feel happy (scoring high on valuing happiness) also tended to view their negative emotional states as a sign of failure in life and did not accept these emotional experiences. This discomfort with negative emotions was part of the reason why they had lower levels of well-being.

On the other hand, people who pursued happiness indirectly (scoring high by prioritizing positivity) did not view their negative emotional states that way. They were more accepting of weak feelings and did not see them as a sign of failure in life.

What this shows is that when people believe that they need to maintain high levels of positivity or happiness all the time to make their life worth it, or to be valued by others, they react badly to. their negative emotions. They struggle with these feelings or try to avoid them, rather than accepting them as part of normal life.

The pursuit of happiness indirectly does not lead to this same reaction. Feeling depressed or stressed is not incompatible with the pursuit of happiness.

woman in sunflower field
Wanting to be happy all the time can make setbacks a failure. Courtney Cook / Unsplash, CC BY

What makes positivity toxic?

So it seems that the key ingredient in toxic positivity isn’t positivity itself, after all. Rather, it is how a person’s attitude towards happiness causes them to react to negative life experiences.

The prospect of feeling pain, failure, loss or disappointment in life is inevitable. There are times when we are going to feel depressed, anxious, fearful, or alone. It’s a fact. What matters is how we react to these experiences. Do we lean on them and accept them for what they are, or do we try to avoid and escape them?

If we aim to be happy all the time, we might feel like some tough times are interrupting our goal. But if we just prioritize positivity, we are less concerned with these feelings – we see them as an ingredient of the good life and part of the overall journey.

Rather than trying to always “tip the eyebrows”, we are more willing to sit down with our weak or uncomfortable emotions and understand that this will make us happy in the long run.

Learning to respond rather than react to these emotions is a key factor in our happiness.

Our reaction to discomfort is often to pull away and reduce the pain. This could mean that we are employing ineffective emotion regulation strategies, such as avoiding or suppressing unpleasant feelings.

If we do, we fail to engage with the ideas that unpleasant experiences bring. Responding well to these experiences means becoming “uncomfortable” – being comfortable with our discomfort. Then we can be willing to feel what we are feeling and be curious about why those feelings are there. Taking this answer allows us to increase our understanding, see our choices, and make better decisions.

As the saying says, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional ”.

The conversation

Brock Bastian works for the University of Melbourne and consults with organizations on cultural, ethical and wellness issues for Psychological Safety Australia. It receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Ashley Humphrey does not work, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond her academic position.

/ Courtesy of Conversation. This material from the original organization / authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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