Good vibes only! How many times have you seen that in the recent past? We are bombarded from every corner with messages about positive thinking and good vibes. The number of posts on social media about positive thinking, accompanied by naming and claiming things is just staggering to say nothing of similarly themed books that are perpetually on bestseller lists. There is no way to go through a day without bumping into them.
Their key message is you manifest what you are constantly thinking of and what you hold in your mind, so you should keep your thoughts positive in order to attract and manifest good things. Positive thinking no doubt has its benefits and the argument can be made that we need good vibes more than ever as we live during a pandemic. However, there is such a thing as toxic positivity.
Benefits of Positive Thinking
This hyper-focus on positivity does not always come off as toxic because positive thinking has some demonstrable benefits. Positive thinking helps with stress management which has numerous health benefits. A University of Kansas study found that smiling, even fake smiling reduces the heart rate and blood pressure. It also has a positive effect on immunity because of the power that the mind has on the body.
Research shows that people who were optimistic and tried to maintain a positive outlook exhibited a stronger immune response than those who had a more negative outlook. Positive thinking overall is linked to increased life span, lower rates of depression, reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and better psychological and physical well-being. Positive thinking also improves resilience and people’s ability to cope with problems, face trauma and crises with strength and resolve.
It’s easy to see why people would prefer to stay on the glass-half-full view of life. It is asking a lot of people to continually face the truly harsh realities that shape our lives from undemocratic governments to climate change and an economic system predicated on exploitation.
Toxic positivity refers to this concept of keeping things positive and positive only. It is embracing positive things only and rejecting those that may trigger negative emotions. It is predicated on this belief that people should focus only on positive emotions and the positive aspects of life and that by ignoring difficult emotions and the parts of life that are not working, people will be much happier. Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy optimistic state across all situations. It results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of authentic human experiences that are not considered positive, uplifting, and on the bright side.
Social media is full of ever-happy people always having a great time. Always laughing. Always upbeat. Social media is abuzz with affirmations based on the belief that to think something is somehow to make it happen. People use their positive thoughts ostensibly to attract everything from good health to jobs and even romantic partners. The implication is that what happens to you is on you. It’s a harsh insistence on personal responsibility while completely ignoring and denying the systemic factors at play. If your business fails or you didn’t get a job, it’s because you did not try enough, or you were not positive enough in your thoughts and affirmations to manifest the thing you want. People somehow in this worldview get what they deserve.
Initially, positive thinking began in the corporate world with people apparently manifesting financial success through it. It was popularized largely by writers like Norman Vincent Peale in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. It was eventually embraced by the church in what is popularly known as the prosperity gospel.
This toxic positivity just serves the status quo, benefiting corporations that largely just exploit their workers and pacifying people preventing them from organizing against systems that oppress them. Instead of questioning why it is you do not have access to proper healthcare, you spend your time embracing positive thoughts in order to attract not just good health but whatever money you potentially need to secure access to decent healthcare.
Positive thinking is steeped in denialism and escapism. Instead of being angry and despairing and facing the heartache and pain and justifiable rage about the systems we find ourselves in, people are encouraged to bury their heads in the sand and hide behind positive thoughts. This is toxic positivity. The threats we face are real and they demand our engagement and response as an organized unit. Positive thinking is all about isolating us and forcing us to act wishfully only as individuals never as communities facing the same problems. The threats we face will not be solved by wishful positive thinking, they demand a collective response and a clear-eyed view of the world that forces us to act.
The opposite of this toxic positivity is not negativity, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us in her book BrightSided. It’s allowing ourselves to see things as they really are without needing to escape to this made-up positive place. It’s allowing ourselves to feel what we’re feeling without needing to cloak it in positivity. Allow yourself to feel anger, pain, rage at whatever it is from illness to unemployment to a greedy short-sighted despotic government that seems committed to the death and suffering of its citizens. Recognize that our problems are communal, not individual and as a result require our collective response. It’s far easier to wishfully attract and visualize than to face our harsh realities but that is what we must do if things are to change.
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