HomeAustraliaWhy the ‘good vibes only’ culture is making you miserable

Why the ‘good vibes only’ culture is making you miserable

In her new book, Toxic Positivity, out today, she distinguishes between healthy positivity, which makes space for both reality and hope and toxic positivity, which demands happiness and denies other emotions.

“It forces us to suppress emotions, which can be destructive for our physical and mental health,” explains Goodman.

It also impacts our relationships.

“If I don’t ever share that I’m struggling, you’re not going to either, and we continue to feel isolated,” she says. “I see that a lot”.

Besides, there is value in negative feelings.

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“I think the most important thing it does is alert us to what’s important in our lives and what isn’t right,” Goodman says.

Of course, different people have different happiness “set-points”, that are temporarily affected by good or bad life events before returning to baseline. While neither extreme – chronic positivity nor chronic negativity – is helpful, being a “happy” person is not toxic positivity, Goodman emphasises. Denial of everything other than positivity, however, is toxic.

“I see people who are in complete denial of what’s happening in their life and that can be huge – people who aren’t accepting that death was coming, or they had a terminal illness or disability and positivity was really stopping them from accepting reality,” she says. “Then you have people who are really aware that what they are doing is on autopilot and that it is not helping them.”

Yet, toxic positivity and the platitudes tied to it are hard to let go of, even for the cynics among us.

I suspect it has to do, in part, with the difficulty of dealing with painful feelings – ours and other people’s. To offer an uplifting platitude eases our discomfort and makes us feel like we’re helping to cheer them up when we feel helpless.

“We often rush into positivity because we genuinely want people to feel better,” Goodman says. “We hope that if we say just the right thing, their pain will go away. We also selfishly hope it works, so we can move away from a difficult topic and save ourselves the pain of being with someone who is struggling.“

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Despite good intentions, and instead of simply listening and showing empathy, we often just make the person feel silenced and ashamed.

Toxic positivity is also everywhere – often being sprayed around social media by genetically blessed, privileged white women, smugly sharing how you too can be more like them if only you banish the negativity from your life, drink green juices and get manifesting.

“It’s ingrained in us,” Goodman says. “It’s almost as if we’re afraid to admit that it’s not working because we have been told so many times that it should.”

Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman.

And it’s not just that it’s not working. Toxic positivity has much deeper and darker roots too, as Goodman explores in her book.

At its core, toxic positivity is a form of gaslighting, she says: “It tells people that what they’re feeling isn’t real, they’re making it up and that they’re the only ones who feel this way.”

This plays out across a variety of forums, Goodman argues: instead of equitable healthcare, we’re encouraged to use our mindset to cure disease; instead of improving accessibility for the disabled, we celebrate “inspiration porn”; instead of gender equality, we perpetuate the “happy housewife” myth, pitted starkly against the “angry feminist”; instead of changing diet culture and the systems that support it we tell everyone they should just love the skin they’re in; instead of finding ways to be more inclusive, we tell people on the margins they “should” be happy and grateful.

“Positivity and happiness tend to uphold a lot of these other things like sexism and racism and other institutions that really want people to be quiet and to be happy,” Goodman says.

Conversations about happiness and positivity and even manifestation, Goodman says, can’t be had without also talking about privilege – socioeconomic status, access to health care, healthy food, psychological and social support, absence of discrimination, gender.

“I think thoughts are powerful… but I do not think they control our reality. There are a lot of other things that influence us and are much more important than just our thoughts. We think weird thoughts all the time.”

And as far as healthier ways to navigate challenging times, like a pandemic, Goodman says:

“We can accept reality and make room for hope. When people radically accept ‘this is the situation that I’m in, here are the things I cannot change and here are the things I have control over’, that creates agency for people and also allows them to acknowledge the state of their life.”

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