How many times have you been told to keep your head up? To look on the bright side of a situation? To think about the silver lining?
The mental health benefits of positive thinking are celebrated both in the academic journals of psychology and in the boundless literature of the self-help genre. Even in popular culture, positive thinking is celebrated as a virtue―most people would rather be called an optimist than a pessimist. Seeing the glass as half-full is seen as a sort of success, while seeing it as half-empty is seen as a sort of failure of character.
Positive thinking, a positive mental attitude, and the general idea of making lemons into lemonade all fall under the umbrella of Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology established in part by former American Psychological Association President Martin E.P. Seligman, which focuses on subjective well-being, positive individual traits, and positive-attitude approaches to mental health. Like most branches of psychology, it ultimately aims to describe human behaviour and improve quality of life.
But positive thinking certainly has a dark side when it’s taken to the extreme, or used as the only way of looking at or engaging with the world. In fact, one of the main critiques of Positive Psychology is a term known as Toxic Positivity, sort of obsession with positive thinking in which positivity becomes the only lens (or only sanctioned lens) through which to view life. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Below are three reasons that the bright side of life is not the only side we need to be looking at.
1) Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt
I’d like to start this list by acknowledging that negative feelings, like all feelings, are valid and real. We may choose to deny them to make ourselves feel better, but denial is a double-edged sword.
Denial can play a helpful role in our lives in the short term; it can provide the space to cope when things are overwhelming, and be a healthy part of incorporating distressing or traumatic information gradually rather than all at once. But denying our feelings brings about its own issues.
In the world of addictions treatment, denial is usually talked about as an obstacle that must be overcome for recovery. In the traditional 12-Step Model of recovery—a model which despite its popularity is not always the best fit for everyone—overcoming denial is presented as the first step in a journey towards health and recovery.
Just like denying our situation doesn’t serve us in the long term, denying our feelings is rarely a sustainable approach to a healthy and fulfilling life. What’s more, denying negative feelings can be maladaptive to both health and performance.
2) Rose-Coloured Glasses Can Hide Important Details
In previous articles, we’ve explored the importance of allowing ourselves to feel as part of bringing growth into our lives. Allowing ourselves to feel includes negative emotions as well.
The assertion that everything is peachy when it really isn’t can be extremely maladaptive. Stress, anxiety, and discomfort can be important signals that something in our lives is not working, or is not working well. Toxic Positivity can keep us from noticing important details, or from taking action on negative feelings, such as seeking support or bringing things up in conversation.
What’s more, negative emotions can actually help us in certain contexts or environments, not just by signalling that something needs to change, but by preparing us for what could happen and helping us to adjust our behaviour to a more realistic picture of our situation, rather than filtering it through rose-tinted glasses. This is a concept often referred to as Defensive Pessimism, the idea that things could go poorly and that we might as well be prepared for that.
What’s more, negative emotions have been linked to higher cognitive ability in certain contexts, such as the ability to make higher-quality and more effectiveness arguments, and the ability to improve memory. In other words, negative emotions have an adaptive role, and looking only at the bright side of things can keep us from seeing things of potential importance.
3) It’s Okay Not to Be Okay
In an iconic final scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), the main character is seen awaiting long and drawn-out death while singing to himself to always look on the bright side of life. The stark contrast between the character’s dire situation and his cheery disposition is a source of comedy precisely because the two are so incompatible. Watching that final scene, we laugh because we know that the outlook is not what we should expect from someone in that situation.
Life can be terrible sometimes, and that’s worth acknowledging. And yet, in times of grief, depression, addiction, or other issues related to mental well-being, we often apply Toxic Positivity to ourselves and others in hopes that this will make things better.
Barbara Held is a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College, and author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining. She uses the term Tyranny of the Positive Attitude (TPA) to describe this same phenomenon of Toxic Positivity. In her book, she explores the impact that Toxic Positivity can have on people by way of the expectation that it places on people to get over their negative feelings. “By TPA, I mean that our culture has little
tolerance for those who can’t smile and look on the bright side in the face of adversity.” She calls this a double punch, namely that people first feel bad about whatever issue in their lives, and that they then feel even worse because of their own perceived failure to be grateful for what they do have or to focus on the positives.
Humans are complex and beautiful. We laugh, we cry, and we feel all sorts of emotions at different times in our lives. Looking at the bright side of things is an important practice and one of the keys to well-being.
However, allowing ourselves to only look at the bright side is a form of Toxic Positivity, as it keeps us from acknowledging and processing the full range of human emotions, places too much importance on the positive at the expense of our equally-important negative feelings, and makes us feel doubly-terrible for feeling bad in the first place.
Like most things in life, I believe the key is to try to find a balance that is healthy and that supports our greater goals.
Ionatan Waisgluss is a writer, educator and web developer living in the qathet region of British Columbia. He is the founder of SquareByte.ca