The Cult of Positivity
Bloomberg Businessweek|January 18, 2021
WHY BLIND OPTIMISM IS DRIVING US NUTS
Mark Ellwood

When her patient started talking about sick notes, neuropsychologist Judy Ho decided to intervene. Her client, a wildly successful entrepreneur, was rich, happily married, and well-regarded by his peers.

The problem was the days when he felt depressed and run-down but unable to admit it. The only way to address it, he felt, was to regress, like a schoolboy, and look for permission from a doctor to regroup. “He knew he wasn’t sick, but he’d go in and make something up,” she says, “just so he could take a day off and be OK with himself.”

She recognized he was suffering from a surging contemporary malaise. “He always had to demonstrate his worth to people,” she continues. “He was thinking, ‘I must exude this image of success and a happy life that everybody has come to know about me, and I don’t want to ever change that image.’ That’s toxic positivity.”

Call it FONO, or fear of a negative outlook. Also known as “dismissive positivity,” it’s expressed as an overbearing cheerfulness no matter how bad things are, a pep that denies emotional oxygen to anything but a rictus grin. You see it on Instagram, where the affective filter is always upbeat, usually followed by the hashtag #blessed. You hear it from the SoulCycle instructor exhorting every rider to swaggeringly sweat through the pain. It’s available from the newly anointed chief creative officer for Vital Proteins, actress Jennifer Aniston, who claims that renewal isn’t only a result of its powders: Instead, “it’s within us.” You might even recognize it in the boss who insists that colleagues start every Zoom meeting by sharing a piece of good news to help keep moods buoyant amid the gloom.

Think of this mindset as one that responds to all human anxiety, or sadness, with uncompromising optimism. It can be found in sentences that start with those negating words “At least,” which are followed by a suggestion that however bad you’re feeling, at least you’ve got plenty else that should offset and outweigh it. Even the oppressive insistence that we should love our body, no matter what, can tip into upbeat intolerance by implying that it’s not OK to want to work on tummy folds or laugh lines.

“Some of the best moments in life ...are full of mixed emotions”

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