Toxic Positivity: Life’s not all Roses and Rainbows and That’s OK

    You just lost your job, your girlfriend broke up with you and your dog just died. Not to mention that you still haven’t paid your rent and your car broke down. You’re feeling sad and miserable. But right then, while scrolling through your social media filled with “good vibes only” posts you see what seems to be a little light at the end of the tunnel. An ever-smiling influencer just convinced you to stop being sad and start thinking positively in a 30-second video. They promise you happiness in exchange for your tears. Easy-peasy. What a good deal, huh?  

    What is Toxic Positivity and How Does it Work?

    The concept of positivity has gained an important position in today’s society. A whole culture has been created around it, and one simple reason for that is the association of positivity with happiness. Indeed, positive thoughts help boost self-esteem and reduce suicidal thoughts. All good so far, but as it happens with everything in this world, when there’s too much of it, excessive positivity becomes toxic, and with the social pressure of adopting it as a constant state, we are driven to exhaustion.

    Toxic positivity has been defined as a phenomenon that promotes a constant positive state of mind, using positivity as a way to silence one’s negative emotions. The suppression of negative feelings occurs by convincing people to focus on the “bright side” even in the worst situations while ignoring any other feeling that we as human beings are “programmed” to respond with (Right as Rain). We forget that, as humans, feeling greedy, angry, or hateful sometimes is perfectly normal.

    As a result of the popularity that “positivity” as a concept has in today’s society, there is continuous pressure in adopting it as a state of mind, to an extent that leads to exhaustion. Despite the good intentions behind this behavior, as part of society, toxic positivity is actively present in everyone’s life to a certain degree. From the “Look at the bright side!” to the “It could be worse!”, well-packed unrealistic optimism is all around us.

    Every time I hear something negative,
    I will replace it with a positive thought.

    Towards Toxic Positivity Detection

    Sabina Hristea, psychologist, considers positivity in general as useful but only up to a certain point: “I agree to think positive, to be positive because that can bring us a lot of benefits, but not permanently. You can’t be positive all the time, it’s impossible.” According to her, positive thinking as it is promoted on social media means focusing only on the good side while ignoring the rest.

    Certified advanced EFT (emotional freedom technique) practitioner and therapist, Shannon Kerr says: “We’re expected to be happy all the time and to just carry on […]. There’s a lot of messaging around, you know, stay positive and look at the bright side and don’t talk about your negative feelings.” Although it can seem great at first, Shannon thinks it is teaching people that low-energy feelings are bad and that they shouldn’t have those because if they do it means they’re doing something wrong: “For someone who has depression, for example, you’re basically telling them they are the problem, they’re doing something wrong, and they just need to think harder about positive thoughts.”

    She experienced this situation at her old job while working in an MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) with one of her upper colleagues. Whenever she was in a difficult situation, struggling, her colleague would reply with “Well, don’t focus on that, don’t think about it. Just think about what you do want.” Shannon says not only that approach was unhelpful, but it also damaged their relationship and she eventually lost trust in her colleague.

    Photo by D Jonez from Unsplash

    Short History

    Despite appearing as a contemporary concept, toxic positivity is just a new term for an old reality. 

    The “New Thought” movement is just one older version of what we refer to as “toxic positivity” nowadays. The origin of this theory dates back to the 19th century and sustains that body illness can be cured with the mind, and the general belief in the “law of attraction”. Yet elements of the “New Thought” go back to much older philosophies such as Platonism or the idiocy of optimism as shown in Voltaire’s novel Candide.

    With the Second World War, positive psychology is seen as a possible solution to cure the rising number of mental illnesses resulting from the conflict. That’s how, at the end of the 20th century, the positive started to be considered the key to moving on from negative situations like helplessness.  Just as in its debut during the Second World War, positivity culture has had its comeback during the Covid-19 Pandemic. It seems in fact that it is in times of suffering that the trend gains more popularity.

    Anthropologist and sociology lecturer Radu Umbreş believes there are multiple possible explanations for toxic positivity’s popularity nowadays. One of them is the social media effect: “People try to present themselves in an extremely positive light, even if this does not reflect the truth about their own person.” This happens according to him because appearing positive communicates to others the capacity to overcome problems and to keep an optimistic attitude regardless of the hardship they face. This makes them appear strong and as a consequence, people are inclined to associate with them in order to learn how to overcome struggle too.

    ‘Optimism […] is the obstinacy of maintaining
    that everything is best when it is worst.”

    “Candide” by Voltaire

    “It may also be an effect of younger generations wanting to differentiate themselves from previous generations who often took a somewhat more pessimistic approach”, affirms Umbreș, referring to the whole culture of positivity that has been built nowadays. According to him, this happened through self-help literature, ever-smiling influencers, and the optimistic messages constructed by advertising and PR of various companies who want to associate their products and services with a bright vision.

    Yet as a reason for today’s toxic positivity, Radu Umbreș also mentions the individualistic ideology “that places all responsibility for existence on the individual” while neglecting the existing differences between people, the role played by context or chance or “the social mechanisms that act at a structural level and on which the individual’s influence is minor to none”.

    Alexa is a 22-year-old economics student from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and she experienced toxic positivity on her own skin. She remembers a particular period in her life during which she was feeling particularly low: “The pandemic made me feel completely isolated, lonely, deserted, invisible.” Yet she wouldn’t let herself accept her own feelings, and while struggling to not let them show, Alexa felt like her emotions were slowly suffocating her. Then one day she simply burst into tears. She started crying heavily telling herself it was ok to do so, and that felt like a “liberation” for her: “I felt like it was finally ok to give it out, not to let that emotion swallow me up. To let it manifest as ‘ugly’ as it could, to breathe afterward. And, believe me, I breathed after.” “If you want to cry, cry”, Alexa says, adding that “if you don’t cry now, it’s not a past episode ‘defeated’, it’s just DELAYED”.

    Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

    Positivity Culture Today

    Nowadays, with the “good vibes only” culture positivity comes in all kinds of shapes, and is promoted through a multitude of products. And how could the world of self-help not be this vast when it sells so well? The self-help industry is estimated to have reached a total value of $13.2 billion in 2022.

    The self-help culture (with daily affirmations, books, journals, seminars, and more) is essentially meant to help people improve their life by improving themselves, presenting itself as a key in building each one’s ideal world. Yet each one of us has different needs while self-help gurus offer one general solution. That happens because, at the end of the day, it’s an industry and its purpose is to sell. In order to attract a wide audience, self-help content is oversimplified and makes people feel happy while consuming it by offering them hope. That is why it is considered that what lies behind this culture is actually toxic positivity.


    There are multiple variations that have appeared and continue to do so in the self-help world. The famous manifesting phenomenon had an official re-debut with Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book “The Secret” back in 2006. Based on the Law of Attraction, simply put, manifestation “is the art of intentionally attracting something that you desire into your life” with “absolutely no limits to what you are able to manifest.” A constant increase in search for the term “manifestation” was reported by Google since the beginning of the pandemic.

    Psychologist Sabina Hristea  considers the manifestation towards the universe as having important characteristics that shouldn’t be ignored. From how she sees things, when launching your intention to the universe, although still a form of desire (linguistically speaking), it is no longer a wish, because it lacks the pressure of it turning into reality: “I launch my intention to have something without putting pressure on it that I will have it. I can accept not to have it.”

    Hristea says that other important features that characterize this phenomenon are visualization and faith. The first one is the hardest part of the practice since it consists in imagining oneself as already having the thing we wish for: “For example, if I want a car, it means being able to see myself at the moment having the car and feeling like I already have it. If I miss the bus and start swearing or if I spend too much money on taxis and start getting upset, it takes me out of that energy.”

    I am whole, perfect, strong, powerful,
    lov­ing, harmonious, and happy.

    “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne

    When it comes to faith, Sabina Hristea says that if it exists it is stronger than the emotions that vary from one moment to another. That is why she considers real faith as being permanent: “If I put a hope in there, actually a desire as I said (desire means to want it badly), and at the first apparent failure I give up, that means I didn’t really believe, that means I just wanted to test to see if it works, and it doesn’t work.” Yet for the people who don’t get to master the manifesting phenomenon there is a “margin of error”. Other times manifestation not working is just sign that the thing one wished for was just not meant for them at that moment: “I asked for something, and if I don’t get it, that means I didn’t need it now, that means I needed something else and didn’t realize it.”

    All in all, Sabina’s opinion on the subject is that it takes time to be able to practice manifestation since it’s a difficult process. What people should start with are small exercises and self-discovery.

    On the other side, Radu Umbreş thinks of manifestation as a new form of “magical thinking” resulting from contemporary ideologies promoted by people who have much to gain from propagating these beliefs: “Basically, we have some successful people trying to convince others that anything is possible if you really want it and strongly believe in producing miracles.” When it comes to “The Secret” he affirms that the ideas in the book were disproved by science and the author is not a reliable source for what she claims. Nevertheless, he considers the ideas promoted by this phenomenon as motivating the success of already wealthy people: “The rest of us, those who don’t seem to have the same results, thus become victims of our own powerlessness”, left with nothing else but “frustration and disappointment”.

    Along the same lines, therapist Shannon Kerr states that manifestation hides a dangerous message: “If you’re not getting what you’re trying to manifest then you’re just not working hard enough, you’re not thinking hard enough.” She believes that in reality there are situations in which things can’t happen as we want them to because conditioned by external factors that we have no power over.

    The Lucky Girl Syndrome

    A more recent version of the manifesting phenomenon, which has made a big impression on younger generations, bombarding important online platforms such as Tik Tok, is the “lucky girl syndrome”. The latter uses the Law of Assumption and it’s basically manifesting that focuses on luck.

    From Tik Tok

    Ria Jangid is a 21-year-old engineering student from India, and she’s been using the lucky girl syndrome for about three months now. She found out about the trend from social media, after following different accounts that promote manifestation cultures. What made her believe in the lucky girl syndrome were the positive outcomes she had after testing it: “I just followed the lucky girl method: you just have to believe that you’re lucky, and if you have the right self-concept, you will. For example, using that I have won three or four giveaways until now, like every single one that I participated in.”

    Yet Ria doesn’t think of herself as being that much into the lucky girl syndrome. When asked about the link between manifestation and toxic positivity Ria says she’s aware of it: “Toxic positivity is on one side like it’s right that not everything will happen according to what we want every time, of course, but if you are feeling good just by bringing another perspective into your life, if it makes me feel good then I would love to believe it.”

    I am lucky in love. I am lucky in health. I am lucky in money.  I am lucky in success. I am lucky in life

    Ashley Diana-lifestyle blogger


    “When we suppress emotions, they become deeper and deeper, more and more intense. It’s like making a snowball. At first, it’s small, but the more we add to it the bigger it gets”, says psychologist Sabina Hristea. That is why people who suppress their feelings end up at a critical point, in burnout, suffering from panic attacks because their bodies can’t take it anymore. Not to mention that this has a direct impact on their physical wellbeing and causes a “poorer recovery from the negative effects of the emotion” according to Towards Toxic Positivity Detection.

    When it comes to positivity culture in general, it pressures people into happy thoughts by promoting a narrow number of self-care practices such as yoga, journaling, or meditation as solutions to get through difficult periods. While these are indeed some classic socially accepted forms, according to Everyday Health, self-care is “anything you do to take care of yourself so you can stay physically, mentally, and emotionally well”. That is why we should once again not forget that each one of us has a particular way of facing hard times and forcing a smile is not always a solution.

    -personal archive-

    Radu Umbreş states that toxic positivity creates a distorted picture of reality: “It makes us believe that ‘others’ manage to keep their optimism no matter what (which is false in most cases).” Because they seem happy, we try to imitate them and by failing at doing so we blame ourselves and feel inferior. The real reason for our “failure” is that we calibrate our expectations to artificial images, he adds.

    Remaining on the social standpoint, toxic positivity affects the compassion and empathy we share toward each other. Umbreș affirms that it prevents us from “asking for help or communicating that we are in a difficult time when we don’t have the resources to cope on our own” since toxic positivity makes us reticent in expressing feelings of sadness or grief we normally feel when faced with difficult situations. 

    The End

    Pretending that the negative doesn’t exist means living in delusion.

    Radu Meza, educator and researcher in the field of new media communication, considers the current use of the term “toxic positivity” as more than just a trendy phrase or a fad: “People are becoming more self-aware and more open to kind of examining their own experiences on social media and then of course potentially changing their behavior […] to protect themselves from something they feel does not contribute to their general wellbeing.” In fact, although exaggerated positivity is all around us, presented in a genuine way, there is also a general realization of how dangerous it actually is. Pixar animation movie “Inside Out” is just an example of a contemporary media product that tackles exactly the phenomenon of toxic positivity, and it explains it for both adults and kids.

    From Slate

    When it comes to the multitude of feelings that we as human beings go through, psychologist Sabina Hristea thinks there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions. They simply exist and are part of us. Whether positive or negative, emotions pass anyway, she says, considering this feature as helping us cope better with our feelings. “Not being into positive thinking, not being negative, just being human, that’s what I would promote. Authenticity is about allowing yourself to be exactly who you are,” she adds.

    Last but not least, in opposition to the harmful ideas promoted by toxic positivity, Radu Umbreş mentions as an example one of the greatest scientists that have ever lived: Charles Darwin. He describes Darwin as “a man haunted by countless negative thoughts, with health and social relationship problems”. Yet even so, he did extraordinary things and lived a good life: “He managed to change the way we perceive nature and natural evolution, was an extraordinary husband and father, and participated with countless healthy perspectives in the discussions of the society in which he lived. He did not seek to be happy but sought to follow his scientific calling and his deeply human feelings”.

    Crying helps me slow down and
    obsess over the weight of life’s problems.

    Inside Out