Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Really?

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When things aren’t looking so peachy, many people respond with what may seem like helpful advice. Look on the bright side. Count your blessings. Keep a positive thought. But is that really good advice?

A happy face painted on the ground.

The flip side of that approach is that it prompts you to ignore feelings that may be entirely valid. And just ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away — it buries them. It’s a tendency that has been dubbed toxic positivity. Allyson Chiu, writing for the Washington Post, notes that “With data indicating that anxiety and depression, among other mental health problems, have surged to historic levels in recent months, adding toxic positivity to the mix may only exacerbate the rising tide of negative emotions by preventing people from working through the serious issues they’re experiencing in a healthy way.”

The problem isn’t with a person being genuinely upbeat or just plain happy. The problem arises when a person ignores a bad situation or the uncomfortable feelings that situation instills.

There are social pressures that often pressure a person to ignore their feelings. They might simply think that no one wants to hear about their problems. Or they might suspect they have a problem if they can’t shake off their negative thoughts. Or they might not want to be seen as feeling sorry for themselves.

The truth is, though, that problems and the negative emotions stemming from them are part of life. Dealing with them maturely is actually the healthiest reaction, even if it involves admitting that you’re simply depressed. “Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them,” writes Chiu, “may actually be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run. One 2018 study tested the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health in more than 1,300 adults and found that people who habitually avoid acknowledging challenging emotions can end up feeling worse.”

So what is a healthy way to deal with negative emotions without simply putting on a smiley face? Try the following:

  • Identify and name the emotions you’re feeling, positive or negative. Recognize that all of your feelings are valid.
  • Don’t try to rush past your emotions. It’s healthier to sit with your feelings and allow yourself to experience them. If you rush past or bury an emotion it will simply wait for you.
  • Understand that there’s a difference between toxic positivity and making the best of a bad situation. Making the best of a bad situation is a healthy sign of resilience. Trying to kid yourself that the situation isn’t really so bad is simple avoidance.
  • Strive to simultaneously be hopeful about the future while admitting that your current situation is tough.

That last skill is something the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald identified as the sign of a first-rate intelligence: “The ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Maybe that’s a skill worth developing.

Read the full Washington Post article here.