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  • Writer's pictureStudent Wellbeing Service

Toxic Positivity: Why 'positive vibes' aren't always best


In the age of social media, it feels normal to be inundated with posts and pictures about the importance of positive vibes or responding with positivity no matter what life throws at you.

Toxic positivity is the culture of constant happiness. It encourages us to ‘switch off’ any negativity and only portray the sides of ourselves which encompass the idealised ‘positive vibes only’ mind-set. In theory, this sounds great, but in reality, it’s just not realistic to be happy all the time and by ignoring these ‘negative’ emotions we’re actually creating a culture where sadness also comes with feelings of failure and guilt.

In a recent interview with Vogue, clinical psychologist Dr Zuckerman explains:

“Toxic positivity is a societal assumption that a person, despite their emotional pain or gravity of their situation, should only strive to have a positive outlook. The absence of a ‘think positive’ or ‘good vibes only’ attitude makes people feel as though happiness is unattainable and having negative emotions is wrong,” she adds. “We are currently experiencing the collective trauma of a global pandemic. It is uncertain, anxiety-provoking and often grief-inducing. The pressure and expectation to ‘be positive’ during a crisis invalidates a person’s emotions. This can lead to subsequent feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment for having negative, yet extremely appropriate, emotions.”

So, what’s the alternative?

It’s important to recognise that you can’t make someone be happy by encouraging them to “keep their chin up” or “keep smiling”. When people talk about how they feel, it’s important to validate their emotions (however they might feel) and listen. You don’t have to ‘fix’ their problems, just normalise them.

Recognise that negative emotions aren’t something to be scared of. Actually, experiencing negativity allows us to build resilience.

Dr Noel McDermott explains that “if you avoid feelings that challenge you – or encourage others to avoid them – you narrow the range of relationships you can have, and you narrow the life experiences that you can have.”

Challenging toxic positivity is as simple as being aware of the language we’re using and focusing on validating, rather than dismissing, the emotions of others.

Written by Fiona Murray Wellbeing Advisor - Faculty of Social Sciences

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