Over the past 12 months I’ve become aware of the term “toxic positivity”. I’ve noted its increasing usage, especially as clickbait. While I believe I understand what’s behind the term and what’s driving it, I’m not convinced that it’s completely helpful, especially at this point in time. In fact, when I first came across it, I was a little confused as to what the term meant and a little irritated that once again, someone had attempted to polarise a term, an emotion or an experience and judge it as simply good or bad.  In the articles I’ve read on the topic, not once have I heard about the scientific benefits of healthy positivity and a nuanced approach to the topic.

In my last blog on the evolution of the field of Positive Psychology (PP) I referred to second wave positive psychology and it’s recognition of the need for critical and dialectical thinking – that is the complex and dynamic interplay of positive and negative experiences. More simply said, the need to recognise that emotions, experiences and people aren’t necessarily good or bad and by categorising them as such, can be detrimental to our wellbeing. For example, to categorise optimism as something that is “good” negates scientific research that tells us that an overly optimistic mindset can have serious negative consequences – think the Titanic! Similarly, when anger is labelled as a “negative emotion”, it excludes a dimensional approach to the understanding of emotions, where there is both a healthy and unhealthy expression of anger. Rage being unhealthy and assertiveness being healthy. That is, a healthy amount of anger allows us to stand up and fight against injustices.

So perhaps a more helpful approach, and one that I was taught in my clinical training (arising out of the work of both DBT & ACT), is to ask whether this emotion, experience or behaviour is helpful or unhelpful? While you might think it’s just semantics, research tells us that the use of language can set off a whole range of associations – some helpful and some not so helpful. Over the years of teaching Positive Psychology, I’ve come to learn to not be too attached to the language or terms that I may love but others may detest. For example, the “f word” – flourish. Those who know anything about PP know that the term refers to healthy human growth and development, drawing analogy to plants who flourish with the necessary ingredients of sun, air and water. Like plants, humans also need necessary nutriments for growth and development. In future blogs I’ll explore a few more of these seemingly touchy words/subjects but back to the topic at hand – toxic positivity.

I’m assuming that whoever came up with the term did have some form of definition or understanding of what positivity means, at least to them. I’m assuming positive intent here and believe their desire was to wisely caution the general public about the dangers of focusing too hard on being happy or thinking positively – to the detriment of their wellbeing. That is, like most things, there’s a dark side to positivity, and that in fact by trying to be too positive, it backfires and becomes toxic. Particularly, when we’re not allowing ourselves to experience normal human emotions like fear, anger and sadness. I totally agree with this and there’s research that supports that. My concern here is that the use of the term “toxic positivity” may lead to the belief that positivity in all its forms is bad with no benefit in “prioritising positivity” (Catalino et al, 2014).

What I’d love to see is a more nuanced approach to the term. Being able to find the “golden mean” of positivity if you like. Positivity to me means the experience of uplifting emotions such as joy, gratitude and love together with hopeful and optimistic thinking (optimism with its eyes wide open). A significant amount of research tells us that this type of positivity is helpful (Fredrickson et al 1998). Research also tells us that prioritising positivity (Littman-Ovadia & Russo-Netzer, 2018) is helpful. That is, that when we organise our days so that we engage with people, places and activities that uplift us, we experience greater levels of wellbeing. I would suggest that now, more than ever, we do need to prioritise positivity. As a leading expert in the study of “positivity”, Prof Barbara Fredrickson says, positivity opens us, that is, it allows us to see the big picture, to be more creative and see solutions. It also helps us to see the similarities between us, rather than our differences. Who doesn’t need this now?

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s learn to see our emotions, experiences, people and the world in shades of grey, rather than black and white. Let’s learn to be mindful of our automatic judgements and labels of something or someone as “good” or “bad”. Let’s try to ask – is this helpful or harmful?

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