It was just as newly-announced lockdown measures meant I couldn’t see my family that weekend, and just as a news alert on my phone told me we’d reached the highest number of COVID-19 cases in a single day since the outbreak began. But, you know, PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) and all.
Positivity has found itself in a place of omnipotence in 21st-century thinking. Every scroll through social media is met with #PositiveVibes, or a motivational quote etched in pastel calligraphy and flanked by peonies. The shops are full of manuals to help us ‘get over’ our struggles and clothes adorned with clichéd slogans about #Goals. But when depression, anxiety, and negative thinking threaten to swallow us whole, how helpful is the pressure to stay positive? Have we guzzled so many #PositiveVibes that we’re now greedily choking to death on factory-farmed happiness? And if so, at what cost?
For years, Ameera* woke up to the same thing every morning: ‘perfect’ women in grey joggers, with bright white teeth, touting the ‘happy life’ on every screen she looked at. It was the kind of life Ameera wanted to live. So she began emulating them, starting every day with meditation, writing in her gratitude journal, and heading to the gym, all before getting ready for work at 7.30 am. She told friends she couldn’t go for drinks because it would interrupt the routine, and she bought all the books. She immersed herself in this world completely.
“I began engaging with this type of content about four years ago when I first moved to New Zealand. Living away from home meant that I was often really lonely and down. But I felt bad for feeling this way; I’d made the decision to be here in this beautiful place. I should have been happy and grateful. I followed a lot of influencers whose content focused on happiness and mental well-being...and it spiralled from there. The people running these accounts were always there for me to absorb myself in. I thought it was a good way to spend all my time.”
Two years later, however, Ameera realised that all this positivity had begun to work against her.
“I was holding myself to unsustainable standards, and wearing myself out trying to do all these things Insta influencers were doing to ‘live their best lives’. I was burning bridges with those around me by being antisocial. Then, in 2018, I just said ‘f*ck it’. I wanted to find balance and connect with those around me. I still do the things I enjoy for my health, but not to extremes.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but what Ameera was grappling with is something called ‘toxic positivity’. It’s a term used by psychologists to explain how a person’s behaviour can be so committed to seeing the good that they don’t pay proper attention to processing the bad. To a degree, it can be a denial—a true belief in mind over matter.
Sounds familiar? Like most of us, you’ve probably followed Instagram accounts that exclusively post motivational quotes. And I’d also hazard a guess that you’ve owned at least one gratitude journal, happiness diary, or positivity planner, too.
You bought in. But, on a grey and sombre day, when you’re feeling exhausted by the state of the world, anxious about work (or the lack thereof) or just down for no reason, does scrolling through a slew of posts urging you to ‘see the bright side’ make you feel better? Or are you left feeling guilty for having a bad day, wishing you could simply ‘snap out of it’ like everyone else seems to?
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