By Derek Sullivan, CCPRD Substance Use Prevention Services
Today is International Day of Happiness! We may be asking ourselves if, “in the midst of the pandemic, should we focus on happiness?” The answer is yes. We are all struggling through this pandemic in different ways, isolation, fear, grief; and a majority of us would say that we feel alone more now than ever. And though we are living in a digital age and connection without contact is more accessible, we tend not to share the difficult emotions with others in an attempt to meet societal pressures or ‘personal codes’ for staying strong and resilient. Oftentimes because we feel this internal pressure to keep negative emotions inside, we subconsciously show others that we are not open to hearing about their struggles. When we respond to others with phrases like “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side”, we actually could be doing more damage than good.
While at first glance these phrases can seem helpful in focusing the individuals on what they should be grateful for, it sends them the message that “my comfort is more important than your reality,” Susan David, Harvard Medical School psychologist, explains in her Ted Talk. She emphasizes that we are living in a time in which being positive has become “a new form of moral correctness.” This means we have equated feeling difficult emotions to something being fundamentally wrong with us.
This phenomenon is called Toxic Positivity, which Dr. Jamie Long, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, defines as: “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations (The Psychology Group, 2019).” When positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic and harmful to all parties involved. Long states that “compulsively forcing positivity amongst those who are expressing pain ultimately results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
While the world around us closes in, we can back ourselves into a corner by grasping for happiness and positivity wherever we can find it. And when we can’t find it, we fake it, forcing ourselves to view the world as we wish it was, and not how it is. Forcing positivity on others creates a narrative that requires “success” to be dependent on the individual, ignoring the various systemic impacts of society. As human beings, we crave consistency and control, even in uncontrollable situations. We have this idea in our heads that if we can control the way that we react and respond to life events by forcing a positive outlook, we will be happier people overall. The opposite is true: when emotions get pushed aside and ignored, they get stronger, and we, in turn, lose our ability to cope and effectively respond to these negative emotions.
Toxic positivity is something that every one of us falls victim to, whether it be through the dismissal of our own negative emotions, or the push of positive emotions onto those who we think need it the most. Our immediate, learned, cultural response to others who are in distress is to do anything that we can to make them feel better. In order to create a world in which we can all thrive in our emotional vulnerability, it is critical to challenge these learned responses and enter a mindset of inviting them in to share their experience. It’s important to embrace and welcome feelings of sadness, fear, uncertainty, grief, and pain within your own personal lives and relationships. It is only through embracing the difficult emotions that we can truly find purpose and happiness within our lives.
International Day of Happiness. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.un.org/en/observances/happiness-day
David, S. (Director). (2017). “The gift and power of emotional courage” [Video file]. Retrieved March 10, 2021 from https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage/transcript?language=en#t-987916
David, S. (2021, March 1). Brené with Dr. Susan David on The Dangers of Toxic Positivity [Interview by B. Brown]. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage/transcript?language=en#t-987916
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