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Why "Toxic Positivity" Is a Dangerous Idea

Beware of anyone who tells you your positivity is toxic.

MartaZ / Flickr
Source: MartaZ / Flickr

There is a simple but powerful rule in psychology known as the “negativity bias.” It refers to the idea that we, as humans, are more attuned to negative cues in our environment such as threats or challenges than we are to positive cues such as rewards and successes.

Why? Like most laws that govern our behavior, it has an evolutionary basis. Our tendency to focus more on the negative aspects of our environment kept us alive in dangerous environments. For instance, from a survival standpoint, it is more important that we notice the dangerous snake near our feet than the pretty wildflowers it may be hiding under. Again, our tendency to focus on the bad precedes our tendency to focus on the good — it’s an adaptive phenomenon.

But, like many adaptive phenomena, it has its downsides. For one, it can lead people to become overly focused on negative aspects of their environment to the point that it interferes with normal psychological functioning. This can produce all kinds of psychological problems such as mood disorders and even psychotic episodes. It’s never good to let fear dictate our thoughts and actions.

This is why consciously acting in a positive way is so important to our psychological health: evolution has tipped the scales in favor of negativity so it’s our job to do what we can to balance out our “built-in” negativity bias. This is one of the reasons why religion exists — it’s one of the ways humans have figured out how to instill a certain degree of positivity and stability into an otherwise dangerous and unstable existence. Spiritual practices provide many of us with the positivity boost we need to get through the day.

For all of these reasons, beware of anyone who tells you your positivity is toxic. Your positivity, in all of its forms, is a necessary part of healthy psychological functioning. The more you can replace negative thoughts with positive ones, the more happiness, contentment, and mental calm you will experience. This is an important point, especially if you are the type of person whose thoughts can spiral, so I will repeat it: The more you can replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts, the happier you will be.

You can imagine that people who are true masters of their emotions spend very little mental energy on thoughts that cause them distress. Moreover, psychological research has repeatedly shown that “positive reframing,” or the ability to turn a negative into a positive, is one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety and improve your mood.

The idea that you need to temper your positivity is a dangerous one. Sure, you don’t want to act in a cheery or light-hearted manner when it is socially inappropriate to do so. But those occasions are few and far in between. You need your positivity. The world needs your positivity. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking your positivity is toxic.

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