The Cure for Toxic Positivity

What is the Definition of Toxic Positivity?

The other day, I heard someone use “toxic positivity” when discussing the connection between our emotions and behaviors. I wondered what toxic positivity is and how can something – being positive – a trait that most consider a desirable quality be toxic? We all enjoy being around someone with a happy and positive attitude. Is it even possible that this could be a toxic encounter?


 On further evaluation, I begin to realize that “toxic positivity” isn’t positivity after all. In an article published by The Psychology Group titled: Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes – Toxic positivity is defined as “the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state resulting in the denial & invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” If you fake being optimistic long enough, some may believe it will transform you into a happy person. Fake it until you make it in the area of positivity. I have tried this, and I can say it didn’t work for long and left me feeling frustrated and worse off.

What Makes Toxic Positivity Toxic?

This form of positivity has at its core a denial of reality. Robert Emmons of UC Davis writes, “To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.” 

I probably was able to fool others into believing I was happy temporarily. Then again, maybe they saw through the ruse as well. However hard I tried, I wasn’t able to fool myself. Somehow our hearts know when we are “faking it,” I ended up feeling frustrated, a little angry, and like a fake – no surprise. Yes, that was toxic for me and not how I wanted to live my life. I needed a cure for this toxin.

How Does Toxic Positivity Show Up in Everyday Life?

Toxic positivity shows up in many ways in our lives every day. Some forms are apparent; however, many aren’t so obvious.  Some way it shows up may be:

  1. You are not showing your true feelings.
  2. Suppressing or stuffing down your emotions so you can “just get through the day.”
  3. Feeling guilty for having negative feelings or emotions toward yourself or others. 
  4. Not validating your own or another’s emotional experience by saying, “well, it could be worse.” 
  5. Shaming someone or calling them out when they express frustration or anything other than positivity
  6. Tell yourself, “It is just the way that it is,” when something is bothering you. 
If you find yourself saying, “I do that.”  Consider getting curious about why that might be.  When we use positivity to cover up and not express our authentic self it is often because growing up that authentic part of us was unacceptable to our parents or caregivers.  We learned to shut it down so we weren’t punished or sent to our room to be alone.  

What is the Cure for Toxic Positivity?

When one of my patients ingests something toxic, I often need to administer an antidote. Something that will either neutralize the effects of the toxin or will block the poison from causing harm. What is the remedy for toxic positivity? To cure toxic positivity, you will need a powerful antidote. You will need to take large doses several times a day. This therapy is felt almost immediately in improved mood, better sleep, and less stress. 

How can you Obtain the Cure for Toxic Positivity?

One of the best ways to obtain this powerful antidote is by being grateful. Is gratefulness different than gratitude? Gratefulness is an overall way or state of being. Gratitude is a temporary emotion based on something that happens to us. Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation and thankfulness for something that someone does for us.
Gratefulness is not dependant on what is happening at the moment. Gratefulness is a warm and deep appreciation for all of life – both the difficult and the good. 

Why is Gratefulness Important?

Gratefulness is how we approach life and is not contingent on what is happening at the moment.  Gratitude uplifts our mood but doesn’t sustain us like gratefulness. The gratitude researcher Lilian Jans-Beken, and Paul Wong, an existential positive psychologist, created an “Existential Gratitude Scale.”  This scale measures one’s ability to recognize the goodness in one’s life undeserved or, even more generally, a simple delight in being. This is gratefulness – the cure to Toxic Positivity. 

What is the Neuroscience of why gratefulness is so great.

Scientists conducted a study in 2008 to measure the brain activity of people thinking and feeling grateful.  They discovered that feeling grateful caused multiple brain areas to light up together.  The areas that lit up were all within the brain areas that are important for emotions and feelings of happiness.  

These are the hypothalamus and the reward pathways in the brain.  In short, feeling grateful can boost serotonin which then tells the brain to produce dopamine.  Dopamine is the brain’s feel-good/pleasure chemical.  The more you think about all the things you are grateful for, the more dopamine your brain will release and the happier and healthier you will feel.  

Even if you aren’t in the habit of being grateful, neuroplasticity or brain flexibility will let you make positive thinking a way of life.  When your brain and body are bathed in dopamine and other happiness chemicals, you can expect to improve every area of your life.  This includes your health, your academic performance, your relationships, achieving your goals and dreams, and much more. 

Start a Grateful for Journal.

A gratefulness journal is a powerful antidote for toxic positivity: 

  1. Write about someone in your life that you’re grateful for and why.
  2. When you’ve had an awful day write about the abilities you have for which you are grateful? 
  3. Write about how a struggle or challenge in your life has made you a better person.
  4. Think of three people in your life that are difficult to get along with, and write down one thing about them for which you are grateful.

Ten Ways to Dose Yourself with Gratefulness.

  1. Remember the difficult times. Reflect with gratitude on the difficult times and appreciate the ways they helped us grow. 
  2. Use your senses to experience your world. Experience the joy of holding an infant by being mindful of your five senses fully. The softness of their skin. The smell of their hair, the feel of their body as it conforms to your embrace, and the taste of your kiss on a cheek.
  3. Fully Experience the world around you: When I fully experience the world around me, I am in awe of the miracle of life.   
  4. Watch your language. Grateful people have a way of speaking that reflects who they are on the inside. Their view of the world turns the lens away from them and onto others.  The inherent good in others leaves them feeling blessed, fortunate, and abundant. 
  5. Go through the motions: Did you wake up this morning feeling ungrateful?  Go through the motions of gratitude by smiling at others, saying thank you, and writing a letter or note of appreciation to someone you dislike. Going through the motions will trigger feelings of gratefulness. 
  6. Pray: In many spiritual traditions, prayers of gratitude are considered potent because of a belief that prayers of gratitude connect the person with the ultimate source of who they are and all they are becoming. 
  7. Remember to practice gratitude. It is easy to forget to be grateful. An easy way to remember to be grateful is to use visual cues to trigger gratefulness. Use the people in your life as visual cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude.  
  8. Take an oath of gratitude. Research shows that when we vow to do something, it increases the likelihood we will do it. Get out a piece of paper and write down your gratitude vow. It can be something as simple as, “I pledge to count my blessing every day.” Then post it in a place where you will see it every day. 
  9. Some profound ideas from the existential gratitude scale include:
  • I am grateful for my life, even in times of suffering.
  • I am grateful that my inner resources have increased as a result of overcoming adversities.
  • I am grateful for the people in my life, even those who have caused me much pain.
  • I am thankful that I have something to live for, even though life has been very hard for me.
  • I am grateful that every crisis represents an opportunity for me to grow.
  • I give thanks at the end of each day, even when nothing went my way.
  • I have learned the importance of gratitude through suffering.
  • I am grateful that suffering has strengthened my faith and character.
  • 10.  In desperate times call on faith: In desperate times, call on your faith, knowing that you can overcome.

Get creative, and on the days you are feeling blue, read through your journal. Let this remind you of all the things in your life for which you are grateful. Now that you have the cure for toxic positivity, enjoy living in a state of gratefulness.