Toxic positivity is defined as the belief you should be happy, even if you are struggling.

Picture a person skipping through a lollipop land of shiny faces and perfect families with a basket of daisies and muffins singing show tunes. This is a beautiful world in which there are no struggles and everyone is happy all the time.

It’s a place where bacon is health food and you can eat ice cream for dinner and still look magnificent in a bathing suit.

Thanks for imagining that with me but I hate to say, this eutopia of happiness is not real.

Joy and happiness are moments you capture and savor. They aren’t permanent no matter how rich, famous, and well-connected you are.

Creating some fantasy island “happiness “don’t worry, be happy” culture in your school, home or workplace isn’t going to force people into the light but instead make them clam up and feel guilty for not being happy 24/7. We can’t cheerlead someone out of adverse circumstances but toxic positivity can certainly add to the stress and make things worse for that person and the group as a whole.

Examples of toxic positivity phrases include:

  • “You can do this!”
  • “Look for the silver lining.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Don’t be sad!”
  • “You are depressed because you choose to be depressed.”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Think happy thoughts!”
  • “Look at all the things you can be grateful for.”
  • Any phrase that starts with “At least…”

There are benefits to positive thinking

Toxic positivity is positive thinking on steroids. In short, it’s fake while positive thinking is more of a personal choice.

A workplace, home, or school environment where no one is allowed to express anything but joy can lead to pushing away feelings that need to be felt.

However, if one is encouraged to stuff all the difficult emotions into a closet, they pile up and come out in ugly and unattractive ways like irritability for not being appreciated, lots of conflict, burnout, retention, and productivity issues.

Students might start cutting. Employees experience burnout and leave.

Toxic Positivity ruins how we listen

People don’t feel heard nor do they feel their input is valued. That leads to diminishing connections between peers and colleagues.

What’s more, if you don’t foster a culture of connection and belonging, people feel isolated.

The big secret is this. Employees, leaders, family members, and students perform better in environments where they feel valued, and heard. That’s an environment where people can find emotional stability and appreciation.

When a person expresses sadness and the response is “happiness is a choice,” most of us want to punch that person in the face.

What toxic positivity can do to your school or work culture

  1. It’s shaming. This fosters an environment where people don’t feel connected or accepted. (What does that do to retention?).
  2. It can exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. This can prevent individuals from seeking the help they need.
  3. It prevents growth. Because toxic positivity promotes avoiding painful emotions and denies people the ability to heal emotionally.
  4. It discourages problem-solving. Overemphasis on positivity can hinder discussions about potential problems. When these conversations are deemed unacceptable, people don’t address challenges proactively and you lose the opportunity to find effective solutions.
  5. Results in drops in performance and productivity. Stress resulting from the pressure to stay positive can lead to decreased performance. Because individuals who don’t feel like you care cease to care much about the company or school they attend or work for.
  6. Leads to poor retention and more absenteeism. A lack of trust and loyalty leads to more absenteeism and dissatisfaction.
  7. It discourages authenticity. Suppression of authenticity can hinder genuine communication and connection among team members.

Let’s not perpetuate impossible standards like toxic positivity that make people feel like failures and instead create a culture that embraces and acknowledges a range of emotions. That includes encouraging open communication and valuing what others have to say.

In summary, Toxic Positivity fosters these problems in a school or work culture.

  • Hiding true feelings
  • Brushing off problems
  • Minimizing other people’s feelings
  • Shaming others for not having a positive attitude
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See Mental Health Workplace Wellness Programs from Mental Health Awareness Education.