by Allyson Chiu
In the midst of a raging pandemic and widespread social unrest, these days it can feel as if reassuring platitudes are inescapable.
“Everything will be fine.”
“It could be worse.”
“Look on the bright side.”
But as well intentioned as those who lean on such phrases may be, experts are cautioning against going overboard with the “good vibes only” trend. Too much forced positivity is not just unhelpful, they say — it’s toxic.
“While cultivating a positive mind-set is a powerful coping mechanism, toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative,” said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It results from our tendency to undervalue negative emotional experiences and overvalue positive ones.”
Think of it as having “a few too many scoops of ice cream,” Dattilo said.
“It’s really good and it makes us feel better, but you can overdo it,” she said. “Then, it makes us sick.
“Or trying to shove ice cream into somebody’s face when they don’t feel like having ice cream,” she continued. “That’s not really going to make them feel better.”
With data indicating that anxiety and depression, among other mental health problems, have surged to historic levels in recent months, adding toxic positivity to the mix may only exacerbate the rising tide of negative emotions by preventing people from working through the serious issues they’re experiencing in a healthy way, experts say.
“By far the most common [phrase] is ‘It’s fine,’ ‘It will be fine,’ ” said Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “You’re stating that there really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed, period. You’re kind of shutting out the possibility for further contemplation.”
The exact origins of the label “toxic positivity” are murky, but Preston said the idea is rooted in American culture, which values positivity.