“When you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive, what they’re really saying is, my comfort is more important than your reality”.
~ Dr. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility
According to a 2019 study spanning thousands of people and three decades, optimists live as much as 15% longer than pessimists. This much-publicized study spanned the #goodvibesonly wave on social media (almost 20 million posts so far and growing all the time).
This came up recently while scrolling through my daughter’s Instagram feed, which was filled with banal chestnuts like old feelings are no place for new experiences (Um, of course they are. Our current reality is completely shaped through the lens of our old feelings) and no matter how you feel, get up and show up (or sit on the couch and have a good cry; that’s a totally legitimate response to being a human in today’s world). And the one that almost made me throw her phone across the room: turn away from anything that doesn’t fit your vibe (aka, if you’re a non-oppressed human manifesting your best life, make sure to ignore all the people in the world that weren’t born with your privilege).
There is much to be said for being positive, including, but not limited to better sleep, lower stress levels, improved cardiovascular health, and elevated immune function. But no one’s good vibes have stopped the war in the Ukraine yet. It’s not that I am in any way against positive thinking. It’s the only part of #goodvibesonly that makes it toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the misguided belief that positive thinking can be – and even should be – applied to all experiences of pain or suffering.
Look at the Hundred Acre Wood gang. Some of us see ourselves as Pooh (let’s just snack and relax today) or Tigger (I am so excited to be alive today!). Others resonate more with Piglet (I’m really worried about today) or Eeyore (something will definitely go wrong today). But in fact, each of us is a little bit of all of them. Humans are multi-layered, complicated beings with a fluid range of perspectives. We need to normalize the full range of emotional expression, because there are no bad feelings.
Eeyore literally lived in a magical forest with amazing friends that constantly told him how much he was loved and he was still often sad and anxious and socially awkward. Because it is real life to feel depressed or anxious sometimes and some people feel like that a lot more than others. What the Hundred Acre Wood gang gets right is accepting Eeyore exactly as he is, without constantly chiding him to turn his frown upside down.
My daughter struggles with the culture of toxic positivity. When her anxiety or depression rears its head, she compounds the suffering by feeling guilty about feeling anxious or depressed. The social media platitudes in her feed only give her false reassurance instead of empathy and understanding. They imply that anything less than good is undesirable. And they alienate her from her true feelings, suggesting that whatever she is feeling must be wrong and avoided at all costs. Then she feels powerless and broken, because she cannot simply turn off the very real emotions coursing through her heart and brain.
When humans are struggling, they need to be seen, acknowledged, and validated, not told to repress their truth. At its core, #goodvibesonly is a form of gaslighting, telling us that what we’re feeling isn’t real. It silences our experiences. And why would we turn away from any of our feelings? Sometimes the best perspectives arise from pain. Think Tammy Wynette or Amy Winehouse. Vincent Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo. Sylvia Plath or Robin Williams. The Eeyores and Piglets that feel the world the most deeply often leave us the best music or art or writing.
It’s possible to simultaneously accept our reality while making room for hope, to accept that no feeling lasts forever and all feelings are valid.