December 08, 2021

The dark side of positivity

How many of us have wanted to open up to someone about a bad day and received an answer such as “It’s not a big deal, why are you reacting this way? Think positively.” At a first glance this seems like a harmless reaction from our interlocutor whose intention is to make us feel better. However, there are instances in which this positivity exists in excess, and it can be harmful both to the person radiating it and those around them. This phenomenon is known as “toxic positivity”.

Before investigating this notion, let’s talk about feelings. Feelings constitute a cerebral process that shows the subjective relationship between a person and an event. One of the categorizations to which they are subjected is the distinction between “positive” and “negative”, with the latter being characterized by the desire for their disappearance. So, there is a portion of individuals who constantly attempt to get rid of any negative emotion- usually accompanied by phrases like “good vibes only”- and are willing to tear down even their interpersonal relations in order to achieve their goal- with the cliche phrase “I don’t want negative people around me”. When this strategy of avoiding everything negative is excessive, it becomes toxic.

Clearly a positive approach to difficult situations benefits our mental health, but when this approach becomes a dogma, the results may be unfavorable. Constantly being cheerful isn’t part of human nature, humans possess a variety of emotions they are meant to experience throughout their lives. By nullifying part of them, in this case the negative ones, people avoid facing difficulties while preventing themselves from growing through these inconveniences. Aiming for happiness isn’t wrong, but the desperate chase for it may eventually bring about unhappiness. Living with fake joy, you never experience genuine one.

All this becomes even worse when it is transmitted, sometimes even imposed, to other people whose troubles we are unaware of. According to the World Health Organization (Global Health Report, 2001: Mental Health: New Apprehension, New Hope) 1 in 4 people experience some mental illness and in fact for 50% of them it starts at the age of 14. So, imagine a child at the transitive stage of adolescence, who is insecure, who is confused, who isn’t always happy as they “have to” be. Imagine them seeking help and support from someone and getting as a response diminishing manifestations of positivity like “Why are you acting this way? It could be worse.”, “Don’t be sullen, you are just going through a phase.” They will feel guilty and ungrateful, that they are doing something wrong, that they tire others.

Of course, you don’t need to be in puberty to fall victim to toxic positivity. You may have just lost your job and be told “look at the bright side”, or lost someone close to you and be consoled with a simple “everything happens for a reason”, even just happened not to wake up in a good mood and be blamed for not trying enough, since “happiness is a choice and “smile a little”. Indeed, the interpretation and approach of a situation can be a choice, in fact according to the ancient philosopher Epictetus “man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them” (The Enchiridion, paragraph 5), but you cannot control how you really feel.

Some days you simply don’t feel well whether you are a confused child or a confused adult or in general a person having a bad day, but you aren’t obliged to pretend to be happy in order to satisfy those around you, so as not to “spoil their positive energy”. It is acceptable not to feel well when something goes wrong. It is also acceptable not to feel well when everything goes smoothly. And it is acceptable to seek help either from your social circle or an expert.

If someone wants to talk to you either to recount a bad day or to externalize the chaos inside them, do not cut them off and do not force them to “look at the bright side”. For them to come to talk to you means they probably trust you and what they need is someone to listen to them, someone with whom they feel comfortable and safe. Even if you don’t know how to respond- after all, not all problems have an immediate solution- it is enough to show them that you understand them, or at least want and try to do so. A simple “I don’t know what to do, but I am here for you”, a simple “I hear you”, or even just a hug is enough.

Translated by Panagiota Katsaveli, Reviewed by Kyriaki Arnaouti

Photography by Grigoris Lazaridis

Areti Chatzaki

A physicist and, of course, an overthinker in her free time. Ηer mind is inhibited by a scientist and an artist who frequently argue, but have learnt to coexist and cooperate. She gets easily excited about space, books, paintbrushes and fairy lights, while she belongs to the minority of people that don’t like french fries (!).

Panagiota Katsaveli (she/her)

A proud Hufflepuff with a major sweet tooth and extreme curiosity about the world. Born and raised in Kilkis, but her imagination has convinced her that she has lived in every corner of the world. Spends most of her free time watching TV shows, simultaneously adopting the personality traits and behavior of her favorite characters. Her attitude towards life is Fake it till you Make it.

Kiriaki Arnaouti (she/they)

Born a Drama queen, both literally and figuratively. Her mind is constantly switching back and forth between Greek, English and Spanish but her heart is set on two things only; iced coffee and books. Her Sagittarius nature convinces her that she’s the funniest person alive, but that’s for you to discover!

Leave a comment

Get in touch

This independent TEDx event is operated under license from TED.