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How Being Positive Can Turn Toxic

We need to accept and validate negative emotions as meaningful.

Key points

  • Reflecting on negative events can help us understand who we are and create hope for the future.
  • We do not always have to be happy to have a meaningful life, but we do need to learn how to live with difficult experiences.
  • Sometimes all we need is for someone to say, “I get it.”

The pandemic has changed everything, including our everyday greetings. “How are you?" has become a more difficult question to answer. It's not so easy to just say, “Fine, and you?” Whether online or fortunately now more commonly in person, we say these words with a slight half smile, eyebrow arch, a “You know, everything considered…” and often the response is “Don’t worry, everything will be OK,” or “But really, think about how lucky you are…” People try to reassure you that all is good, that you have a lot to be thankful for, and that you should just cheer up. And yet these words of reassurance often make us feel even worse, or worse yet, annoyed and frustrated. This is “toxic positivity” as described in a recent Wall Street Journal article. But what’s so bad about feeling good?

Over the past few years, there has been much written about “positive psychology” – the science behind helping us live happier and more fulfilled lives. A recent meta-analysis of 347 studies by Alan Carr and colleagues showed that many of these techniques are successful. Engaging in positive psychology exercises such as practicing forgiveness, benefit-finding, savoring reminiscing, appreciating beauty, and life journaling all lead to an improved sense of well-being and less depression and anxiety. And participating in these kinds of interventions continue to bolster well-being even months later. Focusing on the positive in our lives really does make us happier and healthier.

So you would think being told to “cheer up” or being reassured that “it’s not so bad" would be good for us. Why isn’t it? A somewhat deeper dive into positive psychology helps answer this. Positive psychology is not as simple as “smile and the world smiles with you.” Rather, positive psychology exercises help us grapple with difficult emotions, to process both the negative emotions themselves and the framing of negative emotions in our larger life experiences. We cannot simply put negative and stressful experiences out of mind and replace them with happy thoughts. We need to understand, accept, and validate these emotions as real and as meaningful, and to use these experiences reflectively to better understand our values and purpose in life. This is what life journaling and gratitude-finding do for us. The negative emotions never go away; we remain grief stricken over the loss of loved ones, and sad and angry at the injustices we and others face, but these emotions no longer overwhelm us. We use these challenges to better understand ourselves and others.

Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, struggled with how we make meaning out of what seems infinitely meaningless. He argued that hope and inner freedom help us frame the unthinkable into something manageable. The meaning of life is about making a difference in the world, not simply being happy. As described by Martela and Singer, having a purpose and feeling significant are fundamental to creating a meaningful life. We all face challenging events. If we reflect on these events as ways to better understand who we are, and what our values, beliefs, and ideals are, and to create hope for the future, we can find ways to live with grief and sadness.

“Toxic positivity” shortcuts this process. By moving from the stressful events directly to positive thinking and empty re-framing (but it could have been worse…) we do not work through difficult emotions; we do not sit with them and learn from them in ways that allow us to create a meaningful life even as these negative emotions remain with us.

In our research in the Family Narratives Lab we study how parents reminisce with their young children about negative emotions. We study the simple negative experiences of mostly happy childhoods – a fight with a friend, not getting a desired toy, and so on. Parents who are dismissive of their children’s emotions — saying things like, “There was no reason to be angry” or “But you have so many toys; you should be happy” — have children who do not quite learn the best ways to cope with difficult emotions. Instead, parents who validate their children’s emotions while helping them process them as part of life — saying things like, “I get it; it is really hard when your friends are mean. Let’s think about ways you can talk to me or to your friends about these feelings” — have children who develop better emotion regulation skills as they get older.

We need to do for our friends what we do for our children, to help them process and validate their emotions and to just sit with them as they work it through. We do not always have to be happy or cheerful to have a meaningful life, but we do need to learn how to live with seemingly meaningless and difficult experiences. And this takes time — time to process, time to sit with the negative emotions, and time to allow a more nuanced understanding of those negative emotions in the context of a meaningful life. Instead of “toxic positivity," sometimes all we need is for someone to say, “I get it. That is really hard. I’m here to listen."


Carr, A., Cullen, K., Keeney, C., Canning, C., Mooney, O., Chinseallaigh, E., & O’Dowd, A. (2020). Effectiveness of positive psychology interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-21.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.

Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531-545.

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