Over the last decades, as Americans have grown sadder and lonelier by a whole host of measures, our employers have become obsessed with cheering us up. Google and many other companies have "chief happiness officers," and an army of researchers churn out advice on how to be happier and why we should strive to be so.
Of course, being happy is a fine goal (if also a problematic one--there are a lot of competing definitions of happiness), but according to a fascinating and timely new report in The Washington Post, the pursuit of happiness, if taken too far, can actually turn into harmful "toxic positivity."
It's a warning that's particularly resonant at a time when so many of us are trying desperately to cheer ourselves (and our teams) up in the midst of a pandemic, but instead just sinking deeper into malaise despite our efforts. Maybe you're not chasing happiness wrong. Maybe the chase itself is contributing to your misery.
Yes, "toxic positivity" exists.
Traditionally we think of toxic people as the moaners, complainers, manipulators, and drama queens who can add so much negativity to our days. These folks are definitely a serious problem, but WaPo's Allyson Chiu speaks to a number of experts who remind readers that it can be harmful to shove positivity in someone's face, too.
"It's a problem when people are forced to seem or be positive in situations where it's not natural or when there's a problem that legitimately needs to be addressed that can't be addressed if you don't deal with the fact that there is distress or need," University of Michigan Ann Arbor psychologist Stephanie Preston tells Chiu.
Not only can unwarranted positivity prevent us from addressing the underlying causes of our unhappiness, it can also make us feel guilty about failing to feel cheerful. This is especially true when we put pressure on ourselves to feel upbeat.
"We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which then produces feelings of things like shame and guilt," Preston says. Natalie Dattilo, a psychologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, adds, "We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It actually stalls out any healing or progress or problem solving."
Chasing happiness often backfired before. It's even less helpful now.
These psychologists are far from the only experts to note that chasing happiness can backfire badly. A stack of books has been written about how our relentless pursuit of feel-good emotions can distract us from both social ills desperately in need of solving and better predictors of life satisfaction, such as meaning, purpose, and sacrifice for the greater good.
But the warning that the pursuit of happiness can actually be toxic is particularly timely at a moment when so many are dealing with real fear, insecurity, and isolation. Bosses in particular take heed--pushing for smiles from your people right now may be harming rather than helping their mental health.
Chiu's useful article is well worth reading and goes on to suggest alternatives to toxic positivity for those looking to support loved ones and colleagues who are feeling down. But its most important takeaway in the middle of a pandemic is simply a reminder that cheerfulness can be toxic too, and it's worth considering whether your well-intentioned pep talks and reassurances might actually be backfiring.