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Avoiding Toxic Positivity this International Day of Happiness

March 20th is coming up. This day is considered International Day of Happiness and was coined by the United Nations General Assembly on June 28, 2012. With this day there can be a lot of pressure to “be happy” or recognize things from a positive perspective. While I find it beneficial to consider optimistic perspectives, the concept of toxic positivity is a controversial yet important concept that can present itself on a day like the International Day of Happiness. 


What is toxic positivity? Psychology today describes the phenomenon of toxic positivity as follows: 


Toxic positivity is “the act of avoiding, suppressing or rejecting negative emotions of experiences. This may take the form of denying your emotions, insisting on positive thinking instead. Although setting aside difficult emotions is sometimes necessary temporarily, denying negative feelings long term is harmful because it can prevent people from processing their emotions and overcoming their distress.”


With this definition in mind, it is important to recognize that there can be benefits of positivity, optimism and gratitude. Positivity becomes problematic when it functions to reject other emotions fully. Again, referencing Psychology today “toxic positivity describes a pattern of behavior” and is important to recognize within context and not with all or nothing thinking. 


The controversy of toxic positivity: Society continues to evolve and be more attuned to “negative cues” (such as threats or challenges) than “positive cues” (such as rewards and successes) resulting in creating negativity bias. Pro-actively engaging with positive thinking to challenge negativity bias is a part of increasing our healthy psychological functioning. As a result, this challenges the concept of toxic positivity in suggesting that positive reframing can be beneficial and that tempering positivity can be detrimental. Recognizing this, we need to balance how often we dismiss our feelings to challenge negativity bias using mindfulness and awareness otherwise the emotions can build and have a greater consequence over time. 

Ways to accumulate “positive emotions” from a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) perspective: In the Short Term and Long Term.DBT discusses the accumulation effect of engaging in behaviors that may induce “positive emotions” in the short and long term as a way of increasing happiness and developing “a life worth living.”  To avoid toxic positivity it can be important to find ways to engage in our lived experience in an authentic way whilst being open to new experiences.  DBT encourages us to engage in “pleasant events” in the short term and to develop actions/behaviors that are based within our value system in the long term. 


Once we have identified these values take actionable steps towards goals within our value system. If interested, more explanation of these concepts can be found in the following worksheets: DBT ABC. I caution that the pleasant event list provided in the worksheets may not be relevant to all and it will be important to create your own list. 


Whilst the concept of toxic positivity can be controversial, I open the dialogue to encourage validation that sometimes we do not want to hear “just look on the bright side.” On this international day of happiness, I encourage you to re-claim and explore what does building happiness look like for you?



 

Vera Bednar, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), a registered yoga teacher (RYT-200) and certified in dialectical behavioral therapy (C-DBT). A Lesley University graduate, Vera earned a bachelor's in counseling and art therapy and a master's in clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in trauma.


Prior to joining Looking Glass Counseling, Vera worked in a wide variety of clinical settings including inpatient, residential, intensive outpatient and an assisted living center with an art therapy focus. She also worked in partial hospitalization programs specializing in trauma, LGBTQIA+ individuals and young adult transitions as well as substance use.




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