I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, as I think it is extremely important to have a conversation about, both personally and professionally.
Now, before I start, I’ll be very clear – positive mental attitudes and mindsets are invaluable. Finding the positive outcomes and lessons in any possible situation is also invaluable. These enable us to move forward, be productive, and enable growth.
But as with everything I speak about, there must be both context and balance, and both are now often lacking in our daily drive to be positive.
Let’s explore what positivity is, how it can be both beneficial and surprisingly damaging, and what we can do to maintain that context and balance, and use it to help instead of harm.
As this is extremely important to understand, it’s in-depth over 3 parts – and a little contentious in places.
Positivity is Positive!
It is critical to clarify what these articles deal with. Positivity is not only one thing, although it’s often referred to as such, and here I look at the current societal focus on positivity as a set of concepts and a choice.
Just say yes! Don’t be negative. Can-do! Always focus on the good. Don’t let the negatives drag you down! Life throws things at you, you have to laugh and move on! Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone. Surround yourself with positive people! If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Could be worse. Always someone worse off than you. Don’t limit yourself!
“If you are positive, you’ll see opportunities instead of obstacles.” – Confucius
There are a thousand things said in every culture about being positive, especially during times of hardship. We revere and tell inspirational stories about people who achieve this state, often quite rightly. Humans are curious in that when suffering problems we often don’t just get on with surviving, as many animals do, but actively look for ways to still fulfill ourselves where possible; to consciously push through hardship with a smile and find some joy.
Anyone who knows me personally or professionally will tell you I’m a positive person, but I strive to be genuinely positive.
Genuine Positivity is based in empathy and connection, in acceptance and opportunity. Finding ways forward whether the situation is good or bad, and being thankful for what you have; this is positive. Learning from hardship, sharing and laughing with others whatever is happening, accepting yourself mind and body; these are positive. Positivity helps us Dream Big even when we feel we exist small. It helps us find some peace and contentment whatever our situation. And it helps us achieve things we would otherwise consider impossible from self-limitation.
Positivity requires meaning.
True positivity is supportive, sharing, constructive, and beneficial to ourselves and others. It is deliberately applied in context to the person and situation, which helps align you with the universe at large.
Modern positivity is often considered to have derived in part from Stoicism; that is, seeing situations in the most positive light possible and looking for the good in them for the best ways forward. But positivity is also widely being mistaken for something a lot less beneficial, and I see it not just used and said across LinkedIn and other social media, but also demanded within companies and lives as if it’s a hidden policy (this is actually often a Dark Constraint as defined in Cynefin by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge – positivity is actually a very complex, dispositional area).
In fact, that’s one reason I think positivity as a concept is so popular; in Cynefin terms, positivity is a form of certainty, and it helps avoid the panic-inducing negativity of not knowing what to do, alongside potential physiological responses (feelgood hormones et al). In that respect, positivity provides direction and stimulus, which is good.
Unfortunately, I believe we are actually experiencing a subtle “perfect happiness” pandemic, much of it derived from the relatively new awareness of mental health and social media’s strong and constant influence, and our inability to balance their affects in our lives.
That sounds a little extreme – so let’s explore the idea.
Where can Positivity go wrong?
Positivity can become highly toxic in several ways, especially when generalised, and this can be very easy to mistake for genuine, beneficial positivity – especially online where context is naturally diminished through snippets of narratives. It can be spread anywhere people post words or images without applying them to someone or something through empathy, but instead for attention, for likes, to be heard instead of to listen. It can be spread anywhere people demand happiness through association, via attitude, to aid “hustle”, fulfilling requirements, or in just in general. It is a grey area – but it exists.
I can’t stress this strongly enough: I know people whose refusal to acknowledge negative emotions, or whose insistence on self-belief above pragmatism, has destroyed their lives and relationships, badly damaged their mental health, even led them to suicide. Toxic positivity is not an overreaction, nor is it a joke. It is dangerous and antithetical to society, individuals, and business.
I want to break down something we conflate all too often, here:
POSITIVITY does not automatically equal HAPPINESS, but we are often sold this concept.
We have this subversive belief that we can force happiness through positivity; that we can use optimism to coast through any barrier; that simply by presenting the face of happiness, we can be fulfilled, or that the universe will align with us.
I said above that Genuine Positivity is based in empathy and connection, in acceptance and opportunity; Toxic Positivity is based in demand, selfishness, and lack of empathy or context. It isn’t supportive. It’s dismissive. It demands to be heard instead of listening and understanding. It says you must be happy, or at least appear happy, no matter what, especially for other people. It is invalidating. It is undermining. It is repressive. And it is incredibly damaging, especially because it’s become ingrained in society, business, and interactions.
It’s led to companies demanding that people and processes not be negative in any way. It’s led to people portraying perfect lives on social media, even as they suffer from mental health problems behind the influencing. It’s led to men “putting a brave face on things” to be unemotional and strong, to entertainers trying to cope with pressure using drugs to because the show must go on. It’s led to quotes and memes being applied to everything, with only a brief dopamine release from gathering “likes”. It’s led to people feeling that they can’t find support from others so as to not commit the social faux-pas of “bringing them down”. It’s led to people focusing so much on finding the good that they don’t deal with or even sometimes acknowledge the bad at critical moments.
There are a number of things that define Toxic Positivity, which inhibits success as much as extreme negativity, and I want to look at these in more detail.
Identifying Toxic Positivity
There are a number of ways to identify whether something is genuinely or toxically positive.
“Toxic positivity is ‘pushing down’, denying, or minimizing negative or uncomfortable emotions (and actually, a person’s experience or reality)”
Toxic positivity is a genuine, widespread psychological issue, and it operates at a societal level. More than ever, people are seeking happiness, but you can’t gain that by repressing or ignoring the other parts of your life.
This dark side to positivity comes in many forms:
- The promotion of belief in oneself being the sole factor to achieving a perfect goal
- Conflating optimism (a trait), positivity (a choice), and happiness (a feeling of enjoyment/satisfaction/fulfillment)
- Deliberate ignorance of long-term consequences in favour of short-term gain
- Demands for Can-Do attitudes, hustle, “just say YES and fulfill later” in business
- The removal of all emotive response that isn’t totally positive from yourself and others
- The pursuit of perfection
- A refusal to acknowledge reality (denialism)
- An insistence on labelling all “non-positives” as “negative” (a form of emotional self-gaslighting)
I’m sure you can think of others. In context, any or all of these could be detrimental or beneficial. All too often, they are blanket applied.
But surely, I hear you cry, belief in yourself, setting a goal that is a dream, and working towards that is what we should do?
Yes – absolutely. Direction, removing limiting self-beliefs, and achieving our full potential are what we should strive for.
The power of self-belief and following your dreams is immense.
But you also have to be constantly mindful of reality and context; for every person who achieves their dream, someone equally hard working and focused doesn’t, because not everyone starts from the same line at the same time. Life can – and does – get in the way. Some people’s dreams are simply unattainable, and you can actually harm yourself by ignoring opportunities that are better and more attainable in pursuit of perfection. This is inattentional blindness to the nth degree; the treating of life – a complex, unordered situation – as ordered.
Achieving your full potential doesn’t automatically equal being able to do anything at all no matter how unrealistic!
The other danger is that these goals may be achievable, but at what cost? Burning out is not a cost worth paying – I should know, it’s happened to me twice. Achieving something positive even if it breaks you is still a negative. I’ve written about burnout elsewhere, but it’s linked to this, too.
Spreading and connecting Positivity
I’ve mentioned memes and quotes, so I also want to break down in more detail how these can be positive – and not so positive. Bear in mind, I’m not talking about humour; I’m talking about something specifically designed to promote “positivity”.
Many of us struggle for meaning, or have experienced hardship. We want to find or share comfort and support. And that is great. I have no problem with feelgood stuff; I love it. It makes me, well… feel good! Watching someone rescue an animal, watching a little girl dance with her disabled brother, reading a quote or personal story that touches my core and reminds me of the good or profound, that we can move forward and find our way; all of these and many more are good things that can bring some light to our day.
What is less beneficial is the casual posting of positive memes and quotes, especially ones that are essentially meaningless and vague. Many of these are really well-meaning, and designed to tap into the general idea of being positive, but a generic post can be at best an attempt to salve a deeper sense of anguish, and at worst a replacement for actually constructively dealing with problems. I’d rather have genuine support from a connection or friend in context than a generic, borderline toxic “you got this” or “it will get better”. I don’t like hearing “trust the process” unless it’s very specifically applied, either, because not everyone who trusts the process ends up achieving – this links to the unwavering self-belief I mention in part 2. Because of human nature and the dopamine hit they provide us, these posts often end up getting higher engagement than genuine, applicable and beneficial content, which isn’t always a good thing, either for us long-term or the algorithms within the social media platforms. It can end up saturating our attention.
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I genuinely get why we all love these, myself included, and I certainly think they have a place on, say, LinkedIn. It’s so easy to post a quick quote that has some meaning, maybe pop up a decent picture, and especially on LinkedIn people want motivation. But whilst it’s encouraging, it can also be habit-formingly lazy, and lead to carelessness as long as we post and get engagement.
The number of us who genuinely know what we’re doing is probably nonexistent, especially in business, because life is complex and we’re all feeling our way. And although these casual posts can be part of the problem, these still aren’t nearly the worst part. The problem creeps further when people use a feelgood or inspirational meme or quote that has zero relevance to what they’re posting, just to gather likes, or spew buzzwords to sound positively profound when they are talking nonsense (and I have seen a number of people do this and get worshipped for it daily!). Posts designed as positive purely for the manipulation of algorithms, likes, or literal rubbish posts for the sake of it are much more problematic; they use this deep need for positivity to disingenuously gain influence, engagement, and visibility.
I see so much quality original content on social media, so many genuine stories and meaningful posts, and I find it frustrating when much higher engagement results just from posting an empty, random quote that isn’t even verified. It happens when people are pushing the “influencer” idea rather than actually being a genuine thought leader, and it makes me uncomfortable because it strengthens this falsity that people, desperate to find more meaning, buy into wholesale.
If the only goal is to “influence” and be seen to do so rather than genuinely be positive and enhance people’s lives, that is toxic behaviour. Dave Snowden estimates that within ~9 months any system becomes subject to gaming behaviour; add dopamine hits and self importance to that, and then drop in some narcissism or attention seeking, and it’s far worse. By far the most alarming is the advice from some major influencers, which can be very damaging and dangerous, being spread as positive just because they have influence and it has the right buzzwords or delivery to sound inspiring, not from any substance or evidence.
This is a subjectively grey area because people often post with the very best intentions – but if you take a step back and really look around, it’s easy to see that this has become a movement that doesn’t always have substance behind it. People almost automatically applaud and spread anything that even sounds vaguely profound because we all seek profundity, certainty and meaning.
Next time you see or consider posting something like this, I’m not saying don’t – I love this stuff as much as the rest of us! But I’m suggesting that we perhaps consider the context, meaning, and whether it’s genuine or not. Is there thought and constructive positivity there? If in doubt, you can always check in with any number of excellent psychologists on here – they can tell you what is positive, or not! I mention a couple in the next parts.
Summing up the Positives
So, we need self belief, a positive mental attitude, and to find the best ways forward in any given situation; but we also need a pragmatic view, and to accept that even achievable goals can change (or become even better), that we can’t control everything in life, and that – moment to moment – we have a choice. We can be supportive, use profound meaning to inspire and give hope, and encourage others on their own paths. There are many things we can and should do to find fulfillment, but we must do them with meaning, empathy and support, in context to the situation. This is where I think positivity truly lies.
What we mustn’t do is apply an empty, inappropriate and meaningless veneer to situations and people, and repress anything that even hints of “being negative”, especially when it might be beneficial to be mindful of evidence in reality. Not only does this not achieve what we hope for, but it causes serious problems. In a time when we are more aware than ever of our mental health, it’s worth considering this:
As you can’t cure all physical problems just by exercising, you can’t cure all mental health problems by trying to force happiness.
In part 2, How to be Positive 2: The Negative, I’ll delve deeper into some of the dark side points above, and explore the two meanings of “negative” a little more.
Be positive – but make it genuine!