Toxic positivity involves a limited ability to acknowledge one's own anger or sadness.

Toxic positivity or positive toxicity is dysfunctional emotional management without the full acknowledgment of negative emotions, particularly anger and sadness.


Toxic positivity is a "pressure to stay upbeat no matter how dire one's circumstance is", which may prevent emotional coping by feeling otherwise natural emotions.[1] Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided. Even in response to events which normally would evoke sadness, such as loss or hardships, positivity is encouraged as a means to cope, but tends to overlook and dismiss true expression.[2]


In one sense, toxic positivity is a construct in psychology about how to handle emotions that is built upon the assumption that positive and negative emotions should match the appropriate situation.[2] This is viewed as healthy psychologically. However, toxic positivity is criticized for its requirement to feel positive all the time, even when reality is negative.[2] In her 2022 book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, author Susan Cain describes "tyranny of positivity" or "toxic positivity" as a cultural directive that says, "Whatever you do, don't tell the truth of what it's like to be alive".[3]

Cain said that, historically and especially in the nineteenth century,[4] boom-and-bust cycles led not only to reverence for successful businessmen, but also to attributing lack of success not to external circumstance but to a failure of character,[5] a form of victim blaming. Cain documents this perceived failure of character as being reflected in the evolving definition of the term "loser".[5] The result is a culture with a "positivity mandate"—an imperative to act "unfailingly cheerful and positive, ... like a winner".[5]

Though the concept of unrealistic optimism had already been explored by psychologists at least as early as 1980, the term toxic positivity first appeared in J. Halberstam's 2011 The Queer Art of Failure[6] (" poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life."). Beginning in about 2019, the term toxic positivity became the subject of a greater number of Internet searches.

Positivity is generally seen as a good and helpful attitude for most situations, because it reflects optimism and gratitude and it can help lighten moods.[7] Toxic positivity arises from an unrealistic expectation of having perfectly happy lives all the time. When this does not happen, people "can feel shame or guilt" by being unable to attain the perfection desired.[8] Accordingly, positivity becomes toxic when a person rejects negative feelings even when they are appropriate.[7][9]

People with a constant requirement for positive experiences may be inadvertently stigmatizing their own negative emotions, such as depression, or suppressing natural emotional responses, such as sadness, regret, or stress.[2] Accepting negative emotions can make a person happier and healthier overall.[9][7] Some authors, such as Kimberley Harrington, see toxic positivity as a form of personal emotional gaslighting.[2] Harrington believes that it is fine to be "sad when you're sad and angry when you're angry" and to fully feel one's "rainbow of feelings".[2]

Uncontrollable and controllable situations are important determinants of positivity. If the situation is controllable, artificially positive thinking can thwart a person's ability to fix the negative situation.[7] Another determinant is the person's attitude toward happiness which may prevent an optimal response to the inevitable negative experiences that life brings.[9] Positivity becomes toxic with the inability to examine and fix past mistakes.[10] To gloss over inevitable mistakes with exaggerated confidence is unhelpful because it prevents learning from mistakes.[10] Social media such as LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook may exacerbate the problem as it often emphasizes positive experiences and discourages coping with the inevitable downsides.[11]

Toxic positivity can make one hang onto an unhappy marriage, but research shows that unhappily married couples are 3–25 times more at risk for developing clinical depression.[12][13][14]

Critics of positive psychology have suggested that too much importance is placed on "upbeat thinking, while shunting challenging and difficult experiences to the side".[15][16][17] Finally, by not allowing negative emotions, toxic positivity may result in physical consequences, such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease.[18][19][20]

The concept of "tragic optimism",[further explanation needed] a phrase coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, has been suggested as an antidote.[21]

See also


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  1. ^ Kiran Sidhu (August 3, 2021). "I've cried more during the Covid pandemic than ever before, but embracing this sadness has saved me: It's hard to welcome the feelings that pain us, but doing so has helped me to live a fuller life". iNews. Retrieved January 28, 2022. ..."Positive toxicity", the pressure to stay upbeat no matter how dire one's circumstance is, doesn't allow us to sit with our sadness ...
  2. ^ a b c d e f Kimberly Harrington (January 26, 2022). "What is 'toxic positivity' and why is it a problem? A new book explains.: Life isn't a Hallmark card and that's okay, writes therapist Whitney Goodman". Washington Post. Retrieved January 28, 2022. ...toxic positivity is a form of gaslighting," Goodman explains....
  3. ^ Cording, Jess (September 9, 2022). "In New Book, NYTimes Bestselling Author Susan Cain Explores The Value Of Bittersweetness In A World Of Toxic Positivity". Forbes. Archived from the original on September 9, 2022.
  4. ^ Mullligan, Jesse (May 25, 2022). "Susan Cain on embracing being uncomfortable". Radio New Zealand. Archived from the original on May 27, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c Skipper, Clay (April 20, 2022). "Susan Cain Wants You to Stop Being So Positive and Start Thinking About Death". GQ. Archived from the original on April 21, 2022.
  6. ^ Lecompte-Van Poucke, Margo (25 January 2022). "'You got this!': A critical discourse analysis of toxic positivity as a discursive construct on Facebook". Applied Corpus Linguistics. 2 (1): 100015. doi:10.1016/j.acorp.2022.100015. S2CID 246339733.
  7. ^ a b c d Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., Michelle Quirk (January 10, 2022). "What Is Toxic Positivity? What distinguishes good positivity from bad positivity?". Psychology Today. Retrieved January 28, 2022. ..Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist....((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Natalie Morris (February 16, 2021). "Why it's OK if your version of self-care doesn't look Instagram-perfect". Metro News. Retrieved January 28, 2022. ... overly positive toxicity, selling us an external dream that makes us feel not enough and highlights our insecurities.'...
  9. ^ a b c TheConversation Brock Bastian (January 1, 2022). "TOXIC POSITIVITY: WHEN PURSUING HAPPINESS CAN OVEREMPHASIZE ITS VALUE AND CAUSE MORE UNHAPPINESS". Milwaukee Independent. Retrieved January 28, 2022. ...when people believe they need to maintain high levels of positivity or happiness all the time to make their lives worthwhile, or to be valued by others, they react poorly to their negative emotions....
  10. ^ a b Steve Watkins (January 21, 2022). "Avoid 'Toxic Positivity' To Own Up To Your Mistakes". Investor's Business Daily. Retrieved January 28, 2022. ...Everybody makes mistakes ... But glossing them over, in an exaggerated confidence called toxic positivity, stops you from growing from your missteps...
  11. ^ PARAM DAVIES (October 20, 2020). "How Social Media Forces Toxic Positivity Onto Moms: Social media surely romanticizes the way we view our lives, but with that, it even ensures to force toxic positivity onto moms". Retrieved January 28, 2022. ...Social media surely romanticizes the way we view our lives ... even ensures to force toxic positivity onto moms....
  12. ^ Tatiana D. Gray, Matt Hawrilenko, and James V. Cordova (2019). "Randomized Controlled Trial of the Marriage Checkup: Depression Outcomes" (PDF).((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Fink, Brandi C.; Shapiro, Alyson F. (March 2013). "Coping Mediates the Association Between Marital Instability and Depression, but Not Marital Satisfaction and Depression". Couple & Family Psychology. 2 (1): 1–13. doi:10.1037/a0031763. ISSN 2160-4096. PMC 4096140. PMID 25032063.
  14. ^ Maria R. Goldfarb & Gilles Trudel (2019). "Marital quality and depression: a review". Marriage & Family Review. 55 (8): 737–763. doi:10.1080/01494929.2019.1610136. S2CID 165116052.
  15. ^ Jen Rose Smith. "When does a good attitude become toxic positivity?". CNN. Retrieved 2020-11-29.
  16. ^ Halberstam, Jack (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5045-3.
  17. ^ Wright, Colin (2014). "Happiness Studies and Wellbeing: A Lacanian Critique of Contemporary Conceptualisations of the Cure". Culture Unbound. 6 (4): 795. doi:10.3384/cu.2000.1525.146791.
  18. ^ Zawn Villines (31 March 2021). Johnson, Jacquelyn (ed.). "What to know about toxic positivity". Medical News Today.
  19. ^ Gross, J. J.; Levenson, R. W. (1997). "Hiding feelings: the acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion". Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 106 (1): 95–103. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.106.1.95. PMID 9103721.
  20. ^ Campbell-Sills, Laura; Barlow, David H.; Brown, Timothy A.; Hofmann, Stefan G. (2006). "Effects of suppression and acceptance on emotional responses of individuals with anxiety and mood disorders". Behaviour Research and Therapy. 44 (9): 1251–1263. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.10.001. PMID 16300723.
  21. ^ Kaufman, Scott Barry (2021-08-18). "The Opposite of Toxic Positivity". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2023-01-06.