Skillset New Zealand Blog

Ideas to help your team develop personally and professionally.

When my first wife died many people I met didn't know what to say, so they didn't say anything. Others felt an obligation to be cheerful. One said, 'Ah well, onwards and upwards eh?'

I'm sure it was well meant, but you could see it as an example of toxic positivity.

Yes, it's an excellent idea to be positive. The evidence from many studies is clear: positive emotions keep us healthy and resilient. Realistic optimism helps us to live years longer.

Positivity becomes toxic when we believe that being positive all the time is an obligation and negative thoughts or words are a sign of weakness or failure.

We could be encouraging toxic posititivity when we say things like, 'Everything happens for a reason', 'Least said, soonest mended', 'You've got to look on the bright side', 'Best not to dwell'. (Though let's acknowledge that some people need help to stop ruminating and move on.) 

Joining those who use social media for 'impression management' can do it too. Sharing only our happy moments, our achievements and our most flattering photos distorts reality and encourages others to do the same.  We encourage toxic positivity if we hear a colleague's sad story and tell an even sadder one of our own.

In groups, toxic positivity encourages 'groupthink' famously illustrated by the Bay of Pigs and Challenger disasters. (Check them out on Google.) The pressure was on to be a team player, think positively and ignore what might go wrong. 

So what's the alternative to toxic positivity?

The alternative begins with accepting that relentless positivity has a significant cost. It's exhausting. It's not real.  It's not what resilient people do. Resilience and good mental health come from accepting the reality of a setback or tragedy and working through it.

Relentless positivity is not the way to make important decisions either. It's more likely to be denial. The best decisions involve some negativity. Asking both, 'What could go wrong?' and 'If that did happen, what would we do?' is both real and practical. 


By the way, positive psychology is not about relentless positivity. It's a non-medical branch of research in psychology focused on helping people thrive. 


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