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Desperately Seeking Normal: Toxic vs. Tragic Optimism

Research on toxic optimism and tragic optimism, and why the latter is healthier.

Key points

  • Coping via experiential avoidance is fine in moderation, but overuse of this strategy can be detrimental to mental health.
  • Round-the-clock positivity, no matter what's happening around you and to others, may be a stance of toxic optimism.
  • Alternatively, tragic optimism can be an effective buffer against COVID-19 suffering, according to researchers.
Armand Khoury/Unsplash
Source: Armand Khoury/Unsplash

If you've been on social media recently, you've likely seen a plethora of photos of folks hanging out indoors in restaurants, drinking and chowing down and laughing, vaccinated or unvaccinated, with or without masks. Social media feeds depict folks desperately trying to create a “normal summer” experience, and understandably wishing for a “normal” school year for their children. When people refuse to acknowledge an airborne virus and the increased risk of infection in certain environments, in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable realities, it could be considered experiential avoidance, otherwise known as whistling past the graveyard. Experiential avoidance is a coping strategy in which one skips consideration of the risks, dangers, and suffering that come with life. While deciding when and how many times one focuses on the downside of life can be helpful, overuse of this coping style can be detrimental to one’s mental health (Goodman et al., 2019). Why?

As Buddhists remind us, being human means experiencing discomfort, disappointment, and pain; human existence involves suffering. A Pollyanna-ish stance of “everything’s coming up roses” and rushing to all places normal—when 1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID—is tone deaf and, frankly, out of touch. Psychological researchers refer to such a stance as toxic optimism, and it’s just not very helpful. In my professional and clinical roles, I don’t tell clients, supervisees, or friends to simply “stay positive” because it rings hollow during a global crisis and sounds like a ducking of reality. It may also cause one to miss out on an opportunity for growth (Kaufman, 2021). Studies of post-traumatic growth (PTG), and vicarious resilience (Killian et al., 2017) have found that we can grow through primary and secondary traumatic events, leading to increased appreciation of one’s life and increased compassion, purpose, and altruism. But simply surviving a trauma doesn’t guarantee growth. That comes from processing traumatic events by wrestling with them and actively searching for meaning from what we've been confronted with. In fact, if one learns to flex one’s gratitude muscles, experiencing adversity can enhance appreciation for life’s simple pleasures (Croft, Dunn, & Quoidbach, 2014).

When I sign off of numerous Zoom meetings, instead of saying “stay positive,” I say “be safe” and "be well.” It’s sort of like "let’s be careful out there” from the old TV show Hill Street Blues. But in addition to Zoom fatigue, some of us are experiencing a little compassion fatigue when, for the past nine months, people keep repeating, “It’s going to be normal in (insert any month or holiday here), right? I think everything is going to go back to normal then.” Of course they want things to return to normal. But this form of toxic optimism sets up unrealistic expectations, leading to further disappointment and devastation.

A more productive approach may be tragic optimism. Research has found it to be an effective buffer against COVID-19 (Leung, Arslan, & Wong, 2021). One reason this may be the case is that a stance of tragic optimism is tempered with the reality that there are vicissitudes in life and plenty of unpredictability, and yes, suffering. Tragic optimism allows one to see positive possibilities and simultaneously allows space to factor in important scientific facts and dynamic models, such as evolving variants, and increased indoor contact in fall and winter, and the increased possibility of viral spread.

When members of your social and professional networks predict a totally normal October, or holiday season, and a completely normal school year this year, while the delta variant has increased child hospitalizations significantly in the past two months, you'll know which kind of optimism they may be subscribing to. And you'll know that they’re bound to be crushed yet again if or when the next variant sweeps the country. Instead of regularly concluding that all will be fine and dandy, and continually rushing to normal, we could be conscious and intentional in our behavior and choices every day and work to tamp down future COVID surges. For your own mental health, and those close to you, consider tragic optimism.

References

Croft, A., Dunn, E.W., & Quoidbach, J. (2014). Form tribulations to appreciation: experiencing adversity in the past predicts greater savoring in the present. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(5).

Goodman, F. R., Larrazabal, M. A., West, J. T., & Kashdan, T. B. (2019). Experiential avoidance. In B. O. Olatunji (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of anxiety and related disorders (pp. 255–281). Cambridge University Press.

Kaufman, S. B. (2021). The opposite of toxic positivity. The Atlantic. Retrieved at

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/08/tragic-optimism-oppo…

Killian, K.D., Hernandez, P., Engstrom, D., & Gangsei, D. (2017). Development of the Vicarious Resilience Scale (VRS): A measure of positive effects of working with trauma survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(1), 23-31.

Leung, M.M., Arslan, G., & Wong, P.T.P. (2021). Tragic optimism as a buffer against COVID-19 suffering and the psychometric properties of a brief version of the Life Attitudes Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 646843.

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