When ‘always looking on the bright side’ can actually be bad

Positive reinforcement can boost everything from work performance to your outlook on life. But when used excessively, it can become toxic positivity.

By its very definition, positivity should epitomise optimism and all things that are upbeat, but it turns out that you can actually have too much of a good thing.

“Optimism can help people move forward and encourage motivation, but when it becomes excessive it’s like any other bias,” psychologist Trisna Fraser says.

“Just as someone with a negative bias may not see opportunity, someone with a positive bias may overlook risk. 

“Whereas a healthy approach to positive thought is one that’s able to accommodate nuance. 

“It’s flexible enough to be able to acknowledge and process more challenging emotions and situations.”

What is toxic positivity?

A 2022 study found the Covid-19 pandemic sparked a 25 per cent rise in prevalence of anxiety and depression globally. 

While the concept of toxic positivity isn’t new, it became a buzzword in response to the wave of social media posts reminding everyone to stay kind and practise good vibes in the midst of the pandemic.

Research in 2022 found that as more people turn to social media for help when doing it tough, it becomes crucial for them to be able to differentiate between positive and toxic positive messages.

“A key characteristic of toxic positivity is the belief that certain emotions like sadness, guilt and anger are bad and should be avoided, even if they are appropriate to certain situations,” Trisna says. 

University of the Sunshine Coast senior lecturer in psychology Dr Rachael Sharman says the main issue is how it is used. 

“If positivity is being used to cover up or deflect from real problems that need solving, it is no longer adaptive or functional – quite the opposite, in fact,” Dr Sharman says.

Overly positive not all bad news

Toxic positivity isn’t necessarily bad for you. 

“It’s difficult to draw a line here, as people who are positive to the point of delusional optimism still typically report better life outcomes than those who are more realistic, let alone pessimistic,” Dr Sharman says.

“Where people run into problems is when they let their delusional optimism actively ignore problematic issues that really need their attention and action.”

Blunt can be best

The idea of positivity used as a deflection tool was explored in TV teen drama Euphoria, which highlighted the rampant toxic positivity within influencer culture. 

The character of Kat, realising she is not OK, is met with a visual representation of all the influencers she follows, who dismiss her concerns and tell her she “just needs to love herself”. 

Of course, just loving yourself can be an overly simplistic solution to life’s challenges – plain speaking can often be a better option. 

“You don’t go to an accountant expecting them to fudge figures to make you feel better,” Dr Sharman says. 

“There’s a time and place for blunt, factual information, and a time and place for finding a silver lining amongst that blunt advice.”

How to help someone with toxic positivity

Dr Sharman says people are sometimes not aware they are being toxically positive until someone points it out. 

“So if your spouse, employees or friends are warning you that you are turning a blind eye to issues you need to tackle, it’s time to take notice,” she says.

And what if you would like to help someone you think has a toxic positivity mindset?

“Query the person who is insisting everything is fine in the face of overwhelming evidence it is not,” Dr Sharman says. 

“Ask them to outline and detail the evidence behind their belief that ‘everything is awesome’.”

If your concerns are met with denial or unwillingness to respond to reason, Dr Sharman recommends you distance yourself from that particular person or organisation.

“And I would give exactly the same advice in the case of feeling overwhelmed by excessive negativity,” she says.

Written by Charlotte Brundrett.