Toxic positivity: Why trying too hard to be happy can make you miserable

Reminders to be positive are all around us. When we're having a bad day, friends urge us to "think happy thoughts" or advise us to "stop being so negative". When faced with a problem, we are told that everything will be better once we "let go of worry" and "adopt a more positive attitude".

And then there are those seemingly unavoidable memes that show up on our social media feeds, with their banal one-liners such as 'Choose happiness', 'Look on the bright side', 'Good vibes only' and 'Just change your mindset'.

While we all need motivation to stay upbeat, particularly when going through a rough patch, this idea that we should be happy all the time - and that there's something wrong with us if we're not - is unhelpful and unrealistic. In fact, it can be considered "toxic".

"The scientific evidence is clear that happiness has all kinds of benefits, so of course we should strive to live a happy life," says Paul Krismer, the chief happiness officer and founder of the Happiness Experts Company in British Columbia, Canada.

"But at the same time, there are many good evolutionary benefits to negative emotions. For instance, fear moves us away from danger, sadness teaches us what we value and need to protect, and shame corrects negative behaviours so that we remain socially attached, which is a vital survival mechanism."

Krismer says he shudders when he hears advice that we should be happy no matter what. Not only does this negate the actual experience of our real lives, it can have a cumulative effect that leads to significant mental harm.

He explains: "If fear and sadness are in our experience and we keep ignoring them, then they will generally not go away. We can run away from them or mask them with false positivity or short-term distractions like drinking, shopping and scrolling through social media, but if a negative emotion is significant, it will be relentless. Long-term avoidance of negative emotions may even lead to depression."

Research published in 2018 in the journal Emotion also acknowledged that while promoting happiness is good for our health, its over-promotion and expecting that we should feel happy all the time could backfire, bringing more stress, frustration and disappointment in the long run.

In their report, the researchers stated that emphasising the importance of happiness could make us more likely to obsess over failure.

They also looked at the other side of the equation, finding that emphasising the importance of not experiencing negative emotional states (for example, depression and anxiety) was associated with increased rumination.

Together, their findings suggest that the over-promotion of happiness, and, in turn, the social pressure not to experience negative emotional states, could affect the way we deal with negative emotions when they do inevitably occur.

The next time you experience negative emotions, instead of suppressing or ignoring them, Krismer suggests getting acquainted with them. "When we're friendly with our negative emotions they become less powerful. We see them for what they are: temporary emotions, because they come and go. When we ignore fear and sadness, for example, they start growing bigger and louder so that you'll pay attention. If you stop ignoring them, they say their piece and then move on to make room for other emotions."

If the negative emotions are persistent and overwhelming, Krismer recommends talking to a friend or getting professional help.

Having negative emotions isn't a sign of failure.

According to Dr Timothy Sharp, chief happiness officer at The Happiness Institute in Sydney, Australia, negative emotions such as sadness, grief, stress, anxiety, anger and frustration are perfectly normal.

"Thinking that you shouldn't experience such emotions is not a good way to live, because the simple fact is that we cannot be happy all the time. No one will be or should expect to be happy all the time," he says.

What does genuine optimism feel like? Dr Barbara Fredrickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US, defines happiness as an umbrella term for any of the following 10 emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, inspiration, amusement, awe and love.

What Kismer loves about this definition is that it does not tell us that our happiness should feel a certain way.

"It's not always a silly ear-to-ear grin," he explains. "Different people access happiness in different ways. For example, I'm kind of nerdy, so I like to sit and read non-fiction books. If you were looking at me, you wouldn't say I looked happy. But because the emotion of interest is very accessible for me, if you asked me how I was feeling while I was reading, I might say something like, 'Oh, this is so good! I am learning about …' And then I would tell you excitedly about what I was learning. That kind of happiness is every bit as real and good as any other kind. We should each 'follow our bliss' and appreciate that it looks different from time to time and from person to person."

If you know which of the 10 emotions are most accessible to you, you can structure your life to make those emotions a more frequent experience. If you connect with amusement, for instance, you might go to comedy clubs on a regular basis. If you experience awe readily, you might choose to take a hike in nature every chance you get.

Unfortunately, we face many threats to personal happiness.

In his experience, Sharp says, the most common factors that detract from happiness include unhelpful and unrealistic definitions of happiness; not prioritising happiness; becoming distracted by consumerism and materialism; focusing on individuality over relationships and connectedness; taking a passive approach to being happy or just 'waiting' for happiness to come; comparing ourselves to others, especially on social media; and finally, allowing the extreme negative focus of the news and media to influence the way we look at the world.

Besides practising gratitude daily, Krismer says that regular meditation can help boost happiness. "In as little as eight weeks, a new meditator has measurable changes to the density of their left prefrontal cortex," he points out. "This is the region in the brain responsible for emotional regulation and contentment.

"Meditators are able to mentally separate themselves from their passing thoughts and emotions. This makes obsessive rumination about the past or manic worry about the future both much less likely to occur."

In addition, Krismer believes that it's important to have meaningful work - whatever that means to you - and to maintain social connections, be it spending quality time with friends and family or engaging with your community.

Social connection, he says, is not optional but a must, because research shows that unhealthy mental states - depression and much more - are strongly associated with social disconnection. Of course, there are other reasons for mental illnesses beside social disconnectedness, but where social isolation exists it is often causative of mental health issues and it makes genetic mental health issues worse.

And finally, be sure to live a healthy lifestyle - get sufficient sleep, eat a nutritious diet and avoid processed foods, and exercise every day.

"Our mental health is intimately tied to our physical health, so a healthy lifestyle is foundational to happiness," says Krismer. "We can't be happy if we don't take care of ourselves."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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