The problem with positive psychology: When the pursuit of happiness turns toxic

The positive psychology movement posits that negative thoughts can be reframed. Not everyone agrees that's wise

Published April 23, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Sad faces on sticky notes with one happy one
 (Getty Images / mikroman6)
Sad faces on sticky notes with one happy one (Getty Images / mikroman6)

In Homer's "Odyssey," Odysseus finds himself having to navigate a ship down a strait that sits between two sea monsters: Scylla, a six-headed carnivore perched on the cliffs who likes to snap up sailors in her jaws, and Charybdis, a whirlpool that can easily suck an entire boat and crew down to unsurvivable depths. Years of watching the evolution of positive psychology — in articles, books, and, most impactfully, social media posts — have left me wondering whether Americans are destined to approach happiness as a similarly precarious, if not entirely impossible, tightrope walk.

Positive psychology is a branch of the study of the human mind and behavior that focuses on positive emotion, traits, experience, and institutions. It tends to be about optimism and resilience in the face of life's challenges. Just listen to Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.

"[W]hen we invite negative (or dysfunctional) thoughts to hang around, we empower them," she writes in "Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You've Always Wanted." Her book is one piece of the $10.4 billion self-improvement market that has made happiness and positivity "both a goal and an obligation," according to Whitney Goodman.

Goodman isn't the first to write a book on toxic positivity, usually defined as an obsession with maintaining a positive mindset, but hers, "Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy," represents the culmination of years spent advocating against it via her influential Instagram account @sitwithwhit.

The basics of toxic positivity

Some believe positive psychology can be boiled down to a fake-it-'til-you-make-it style of rebranding. "Our obsession with positivity is all around us," Goodman writes: "Struggles are now 'opportunities.' Triggers are 'teachers.' Grief is now 'love with nowhere to go.' Weaknesses are actually 'emerging strengths.'"

Bonior's book would seem to exemplify this thinking. She encourages readers to "channel your uncomfortable feelings into something progressive or creative." When faced with "embarassments, setbacks, emotions that feel like weaknesses, and incidents we wish we could do over," she suggests asking oneself, "How can you turn those into something that matters in a positive way?" and "If you pretended this feeling was a teacher, what would its lesson be?"

"Our obsession with positivity is all around us," Goodman writes: "Struggles are now 'opportunities.' Triggers are 'teachers.' Grief is now 'love with nowhere to go.' Weaknesses are actually 'emerging strengths.'"

Her book is all about how to keep negative thoughts from becoming "sticky," and thus interfering with our work, moods, and relationships. Bonior offers powerful, research-backed tools like self-distancing ("I'm not a good enough mother" becomes "I'm having the thought that I'm not a good enough mother"), mindfulness, reinterpreting and reframing, visualization ("Are the thoughts big, dark, hot clouds like smoke?"), meditation, and more. "[I]t's not the presence of our thoughts we need to change," she says, "It's how we view them." After all, two people waiting in line for a roller coaster, one excited and one terrified, experience the same physiological sensations; the only difference is "what story you tell yourself about them."

Bonior wants us to know we are in charge of such things. "Summon the courage to release the thoughts that are redundant, dysfunctional, exaggerated, or unduly catastrophic," she writes: "If you choose to find meaning in your mistakes, then you get to decide what story your mistake tells you and what value it has."

This sort of messaging can frame wellness as something "promised to those who work for it, earn it, and deserve it," Goodman says, and "it feels like if we're not able to achieve this mindset, we must be doing something wrong, something must be wrong with us." Anxiety becomes a sign that "you're not focusing enough on the good." Gratitude is "a weapon of shame that we wield at ourselves and one another."

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Goodman sees people who are obsessed with their mental detox to the point of becoming "like orthorexia (an obsession with healthy eating), but for the mind."

There are more problems with fixating on positivity, according to Sara Ahmed, a self-described person of color from Australia with a philosopher's penchant for writing in circles (albeit circles that advance the conversation). In "The Promise of Happiness," she addresses pressure to be happy for the sake of others, and judgment of those who fail to do so, like divorcees.

The ideal of happiness has a history of being used to oppress, Ahmed argues. The image of "the happy housewife" has been used to justify an inequitable division of domestic labor and deny millions of women ambition, curiosity, and desire. The myth of the "happy slave" paved the way for continued violence and denial of humanity, and in its wake cruises the "angry Black woman" trope. The same pattern applies to colonization: It was justified as bringing modern sensibilities to unhappy natives and trailed by pressure on immigrants to bask in multiculturalism. Those who do not quickly and gratefully assimilate are labeled "melancholic migrants." They — like Nikole Hannah-Jones and "feminist killjoys" — are accused of sabotaging the happiness of others with their consciousness of injustice. Happiness can be problematic for the LGBTQ+ community as well. The most common vision of queer happiness, Ahmed writes, approximates the "domestic bliss" of heterosexuality. To prove that one deserves to have married and become a parent is to appear unfailingly content. And to prove that one deserves to be content is to marry and become a parent.

The face of happiness," she concludes, "looks rather like the face of privilege," which provides a full-circle moment given the word's derivation from the Middle English "hap," meaning lucky or fortunate. Combining the two authors' readings, toxic positivity is a myth of mental meritocracy that says we can experience perpetual happiness if only we work hard enough to toe the line.

The tightrope walk

Goodman is right, of course. Positivity can be toxic. But that doesn't make Bonior wrong. In fact, both therapists ultimately write the same prescription: Whether the diagnosis is perfectionism or regret or a need for affirmation, balance is the treatment. That, and avoiding a second layer of negativity, as Bonior puts it, "feeling bad about feeling bad."

She writes, "If you can make room for your negative feelings as well as your positive ones … then you — quite ironically — can help them on their way."

Goodman agrees, but says, "Timing is everything…. [Y]ou have to allow yourself to experience the full breadth of the emotion and allow it to rise, peak, and then fall." Self-directed toxic positivity leads us to short-circuit this cycle. "It effectively says, 'Nope, that feeling you're experiencing, it's wrong and here's why you should be happy instead.'" She recommends taking the time to say, "I'm feeling (name) and I'm allowed to have this feeling."

When it comes to sharing our emotions, "we have to be careful and find the perfect balance between too much emotional expression and too little," Goodman says. Don't repress emotion. But also don't vent. Complain, because, she writes, "Complaints are how we let people know what we need and how to meet our needs." And don't assume having gripes means you're unappreciative or "can't handle it." That said, "when complaining becomes constant or circular, it's much less helpful." She ultimately offers eight guidelines for complaining effectively.

Combining the two authors' readings, toxic positivity is a myth of mental meritocracy that says we can experience perpetual happiness if only we work hard enough to toe the line.

When someone confides negative emotions in us, Goodman says, we have to avoid the phrase "at least" (e.g., "your marriage may have been abusive, but at least you wound up with two gorgeous kids!") and other attempts at perspective-lending that can leave "no more space for your emotions or your processing." She describes these efforts at what psychologists call "reappraisal" — and the rest of us call "finding silver linings" — as "being pulled into the land of positivity whether you were ready or not," and says, "It's the exact opposite of what we want to do when people are in pain." It can leave our friend feeling invalidated, their traumas minimized.

And yet, research suggests that just offering sympathy as someone recounts a negative experience may make them feel better temporarily, but it doesn't help them process. Facilitating as they reconstrue an event — by asking them to step in someone else's shoes or look at the big picture — does aid in discharging the underlying emotion. "At least" and other counterfactuals can make us feel better and improve performance, other research shows, even if that meaning-making process initially feels like a negation. Goodman defaults to, "Have I asked them how they like to be supported?" But that may give our loved ones what they want, not what they need. It's easy to err on one side or the other.

Gratitude gets the same treatment. Bonior says "counting your blessings" doesn't mean ignoring "the crappy stuff." Rather, "[g]ratitude is … being attuned to the whole picture of your life." And that's essentially where Goodman lands too, via a cautionary tale. Before she understood toxic positivity, she'd say to herself, "I have so much to be thankful for, other people have it worse, and I should be happy." This forced thankfulness is unproductive, she says. And yet, Goodman acknowledges research showing that gratitude interventions like regularly journaling can improve well-being. "This makes sense.… If we focus solely on what we lack or what we don't have control over, it will only lead to feeling worse. The hard part is finding that balance." Both authors want us to, in Goodman's words, "make room for validation and gratitude at the same time."

Okay, got it: Complain, but don't do it the wrong way. Express emotion, but not like that. Embrace gratitude, but not too tightly. I find myself in a shiny leotard, high above the circus spectators, holding that pole and praying my toes keep finding rope.

Is positive psychology the answer to the problem with positive psychology?

Laurie Santos, a Yale professor and host of the popular podcast "The Happiness Lab," disseminates information like Bonior's. When anxious, she suggests in one issue of the Science of Wellbeing newsletter, "You can calm yourself with touch. Tenderly touch your stomach or your chest; hold your face; rub your hands; give yourself a hug." Or make your way through "a checklist of questions we can all use to interrogate an anxious thought." In an interview with the New York Times, she says, "Why are there so many happiness books and other happiness stuff and people are still not happy? … Because it takes work! Because it's hard!"

Goodman, the critic, doesn't entirely disagree. In the most revealing segment of her book, she writes, "Toxic positivity is the advice we might technically want to integrate but are incapable of synthesizing at the moment." The fact that we can't is what "leaves us feeling silenced, judged, and misunderstood" or like we're not working hard enough to be positive enough (or to care less about being positive enough). There's circularity here, a definition that's both contingent and malleable: When we can swing coping mechanisms, they're healthy. When we can't, they're toxic. We don't know what we can manage until we try, but just the pressure to try can be toxic.

This was the point in my thinking where I had to call Lea Waters. Waters is a researcher and leader in the field of positive psychology. She likens academic psychology to a pendulum swing: for a century, it was fixated on what's wrong with us. Then, about 20 years ago, she and others pulled the pendulum back, saying, "we also need to know what's right with us." A decade later a new movement emerged, dubbed "Positive Psychology 2.0," which she sums up as a synthesis of the two sides of the pendulum: "It's yin and yang; we have to integrate both these things." For example, negative emotions like guilt and sadness can have positive outcomes by alerting us that something needs to change.

RELATED: Permanent happiness is a myth: Why you shouldn't want to always be happy

She understands the frustration of those who say, "All right, so now it's positive to be negative?" And she sees why Goodman says it can be negative to be positive: "When the science gets reported in self-help books and media blogs, it does become very one dimensional," Waters says. She totally gets that her field can unintentionally feed perfectionism and bootstrapping. And yet, she still recommends Aristotle's "golden mean," which she summarizes as "the right emotion or the right action for the right context in the right amount." In other words, the middle path, the tightrope walk, the threading of Scylla and Charybdis.

But she offers us a few ways out of this performance. Kind of. Sort of?

First, Waters recommends more trust in ourselves. Like Goodman, she draws a parallel to the physical health industry. "People say, 'Which one do you want me to do? Am I supposed to do high protein or am I supposed to do high fat?'" Just as experimentation helps you find the diet that works well for you, Waters says, finding that mental health middle path is about trial and error. She thinks folks run into trouble when they rely on solely one positive psychology tool.

"Forgiveness is a virtue, but if you are in a repeatedly harmful relationship and keep on forgiving, then forgiveness ends up harming you," she says. And you can't be mindful if you're constantly stressing over whether you're being mindful enough. "If we have a small number of things in our toolkit, and we kind of brittly use those things, that leads to toxic positivity," she says. So one answer is to gather more tools and use them more intentionally, which is … more self-help via more positive psychology.

Her second approach to the problem she dubs, "permission to be human." Waters says she takes "time off from my well being journey … to just have some days where I don't think, 'Okay, I can reframe that.'"

How do you step off the positivity treadmill? When you worry, "Oh, I didn't lean into anger," Waters says, "use the tool of self-kindness and self-compassion." She pauses for a moment. "So that's kind of an interesting irony, that it's a positive psychology tool that allows us to step away from that pressure."

Framing happiness as an individual duty is bad because it makes us turn a blind eye to social ills that may be the true source of our misery — and which aren't easily fixable through reframing.

There's a different kind of permission to be human, and it comes from Betty Friedan, among others. In "The Feminine Mystique," she holds up "aliveness" as an alternative goal to happiness. All of these folks touch on the two types of well being: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic is that blissed out, in the moment, this-is-so-fun type of pleasure. Eudaimonic well-being is a deeper sort of contentment related to living a life of purpose, a life we believe in. Too many of us think we can muscle our way toward lasting joy through positivity, but Goodman says the very best lives feature only moments of bliss amid that eudaimonic sense of fulfillment. This knowledge, "makes room for the fact that living in accordance with our values doesn't always mean feeling happy or good."

Framing happiness as an individual duty is bad because it doesn't make that room, and also because it makes us turn a blind eye to social ills that may be the true source of our misery — and which aren't easily fixable through reframing. Ahmed quotes Audre Lorde: "Looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening or dangerous to the status quo."

Positivity might encourage us to be satisfied with injustice, but in other ways it makes us dissatisfied with our now, constantly striving for a better future. That's why Bonior stresses, "There is no point in life when we will suddenly 'arrive' at a place that is permanently easier, less stressful, or free of unexpected complications." That's just not what aliveness entails, Goodman agrees: "Distress, discomfort, and anxiety are all a guaranteed part of life."

Yet social media sells positivity and happiness the same way it sells a tiny waist paired with an apple bottom. Of her patient, Tory, Goodman writes: "[T]he world is determined to always make her feel like she's missing something so that they can sell her a product or get her to change. Tory has been sold the lie that there is this oasis of positivity and happiness on the other side of her self-improvement journey." But "there isn't this final happiness destination," Goodman says, "This is it." So accept that fact. Reframe with this lens. Embrace the messiness of being human.

That sounds a lot like more positive psychology work.

The most clarifying thing Waters says in our chat relates back to Goodman's assertion that positive psychology frames weaknesses as "emerging strengths." That's just not true, Waters balks: A strengths-based approach acknowledges the existence of true weaknesses and asks you to work on them only to the point where they no longer negatively impact your life.

My favorite example is handwriting. If you're just not great at it and don't have a passion for it, aim for legibility, not calligraphy. Waters recommends a similar approach to using these wellness tools: "It doesn't have to be another thing on your to-do list…. You do the hard work, and it gets you to the level where there's a kind of built-in momentum. So you don't even have to think of doing mindfulness. It's not a task or a chore, your brain will just kind of automatically do it."

My brain does not yet just kind of automatically do it.

Which brings us to a third kind of permission to be human. In times of crisis, Waters says, when everything is burning down, "I'm not using the foundational tools because I can't." She says she rises wiser and kinder, like a phoenix from the ashes: "Sometimes, you have to step out of your own way and just let the lessons of life sort of present themselves." Goodman's bottom line recommendation sounds similarly simple: "Seriously, eat the cookie. Watch the movie. Read the book. Not everything you do has to be about improving your health, your knowledge, your job, or your body."

Pretty much everything all of them they say makes sense. And yet, my leotard chafes as I feel the rope wobbling under my feet, my sights trained on the distance.

Read more from Gail Cornwall on parenting:

By Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at

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