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‘Toxic Positivity’: Perils of always cheering up

It was early spring of 2020 when yellow daffodils had begun to emerge from the moist earth. I was glad to leave the dark communication-less days of abrogation behind. Office space became more vibrant and cheerful. I looked forward to daily face to face interactions. The dreaded meetings with the editor were no longer dreaded. Deadlines no longer breathed down my neck. Going out for stories became a more joyful experience. 

And on one sunny day of March, all the hell broke loose. The worst news of the pandemic broke in our newsroom. Each day, the horror grew, and the positive cases increased. Once again, we were left brooding in the four walls of our homes, and got caught in the vortex of lockdowns.

One year of loneliness followed by another bout of solitude was too much to take in. I tried to remind myself that it was a universal problem, and I should show more gratitude.

So, I carried on, and tried to cloak my sadness with a determined attitude of a reporter. I followed and reported every Covid-19 update. I read too much into the news, bookmarked every new research study, and highlighted each data popping on the official Twitter Handles. The exercise was mentally draining, but I tried to look for the brighter side of things, and pushed myself with— “there is more to come, and better days ahead type of reminders.”

Deep inside, I missed talking to my friends, and colleagues. I missed my long walks to the office. I missed going out to the nursery. I missed the mild scolding from my editor over details in the story. I missed taking my grandmother out, and sharing oranges with her in the afternoon sun. I missed going to the bookstore, and breaking into a conversation with the friendly bookstore boy, who wholeheartedly showed me the new books on sale. I missed going out with mum to the nearby readymade garments shop, and always ending up buying one thing or other, even when there was no need. But I always ignored this nostalgia with a committed refusal to feel sad, and as a result I always felt trapped in an abyss – neither happy nor sad.

In retrospect, I now realize how I had not made peace with my negative thoughts, and had refused to acknowledge the grief that was piling up inside. The constant reassurances, and the syndrome of “Toxic positivity” had caught up with me. This toxic positivity made me believe no matter what adversity we face; we can use enforced time at home during the Covid-19 pandemic to develop new skills or improve fitness.

Toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.

For several decades, books and popular media have highlighted the potential value of positive thinking, and there is some evidence to show that it can improve mental health. For example, a 2018 study of college students suggests that high self-esteem may support positive thinking, reducing the risk of suicidal ideas and gestures.

However, the data highlighting the benefits of positive thinking also shows that factors such as social support and self-efficacy, which is a person’s ability to cope, interact with positive thinking to improve well-being. Positive thinking does not exist in a vacuum, and it is not a panacea for all of life’s challenges.

The research around positive thinking generally focuses on the benefits of having an optimistic outlook when experiencing a problem. Toxic positivity, by contrast, demands positivity from people regardless of the challenges that they face, potentially silencing their emotions and deterring them from seeking social support.

Humans feel a wide range of emotions, each of which is an important part of well-being. Anxiety, for example, may alert a person to a dangerous situation or a moral qualm, while anger is a normal response to injustice or mistreatment. Sadness may signal the intensity of a loss.

Not acknowledging these emotions means ignoring the action they can inspire. Moreover, failing to talk about them will not make them go away. Most people need help to deal with their emotions from time to time. Simply vocalizing emotions may make them feel less powerful, helping a person feel less “trapped” by them.

Some research shows that talking about emotions, including negative emotions, may even help the brain better process feelings. An older study found that labelling and talking about emotions reduced the strength of certain brain pathways associated with those emotions. This finding suggests that talking about feelings may make them feel less overwhelming.

The solution, therefore, does not lie always in putting up a positive spin to things. It is alright to mourn and be hurt, and acknowledge that there is no silver lining to this cloud. Yes, we must not let ourselves be consumed by a vortex of negativity, and let despair paralyze us. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that, and that as shade follows the sun, grief and despair will follow joy. One can’t exist without the other, and that, dear reader, is the bitter reality of life.

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