We all know people — many of them wellness colleagues — who go overboard on positive… from exhibiting exorbitant enthusiasm to insisting on a perpetually optimistic attitude from everyone to posting cheery but hollow platitudes and memes. Though people mean well, excessive positivity is toxic.
Psychology research has long established that suppressing less popular, but no less worthy, thoughts and emotions is harmful. Anger, sadness, and guilt, for example, are natural emotions that play a vital role in human well-being. Expressing extreme happiness and optimism regardless of the circumstances — toxic positivity — leads to unintended consequences of others believing their negative emotions are unacceptable. It’s rampant in our culture and in our industry; but we can change that.
Providing upbeat support as people adopt healthier lifestyle habits is part of our role as well-being professionals. Done well, it’s appropriate and helpful. Overdone, it’s off-putting and harmful to mental well-being. Plus, it makes us come across as out of touch and insensitive.
You may already know what toxic positivity looks and sounds like:
- Don’t let anything get in the way of your goals!
- Choose to be happy!
- Stay positive!
When we ooze over-the-top positivity, we set an expectation of happiness and low tolerance for anything else, no matter what others are dealing with: pandemic, wildfires, racism. Mental health experts say this breeds shame, suppressed emotions, isolation, and other problems.
What to Do
Wellness leaders and team members can support mental well-being by avoiding toxic positivity and its fallout. Instead, let’s foster a culture of authentic connection where people know they’re seen, heard, and accepted… where it’s OK to not be OK. A few ideas to spark reflection:
- Look in the mirror. Ask around your workplace to be sure you’re not contributing to the problem. If you tend to gloss over negative emotions — in yourself or others — with gushing, upbeat responses, or habitually speaking/writing/posting positive clichés, learn and practice more effective ways of communicating.
- Show understanding. Avoid the impulse to point to the silver lining when people mention a difficult situation or emotion. Instead, use language that validates the feeling and demonstrates you’re listening: “That’s tough; I’m sorry this is happening.” “I’m here for you; can I help?” “I understand; what do you think might make this easier?”
- Tone down the kudos. Offer a measured expression of support — a thumbs-up, not a backward handspring — when a participant makes progress toward a goal: “Nice effort, you’re right on track” feels more genuine and true than “Woo-hoo, you’re amazing!” After all, they still have work to do. Save the big high-five for when they cross the finish line. Think of it this way: If everything is awesome, nothing is.
Aim for Balance
Nobody’s suggesting that you halt all positive remarks, messages, and posts. The idea is to more fully experience — and accept — the natural variety of human emotions. When people feel safe being themselves at work — whether they’re having an up or down day (or year) — they also feel supported and understood, not judged. In that environment, mental well-being can truly flourish.
- Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener: The Upside of Your Dark Side (2014)
- Allyson Chiu: Time to ditch ‘toxic positivity,’ experts say: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’ (Washington Post, 2020)
Well-being consultant, educator, writer ｜National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach ｜ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist ｜Lifestyle medicine advocate ｜25+ years in wellness ｜Jazz enthusiast.