2020 has been a year like most of us have never experienced, and one we’re sure never to forget. It’s made many of us realize how very little positivity we get to see in the world on a daily basis. It’s encouraged us to have bigger hearts, stand a little taller, treat everyone equally, and stick our necks out for others.
But there’s a term I’ve been hearing a lot this year that I have a problem with. I know you’ve heard it. You may have read an article about it and even shared it with friends. I’ve read the articles too. The term is “toxic positivity.” It refers to those who can’t let themselves (or others) be negative. People who encourage you to look on the bright side when you’re in the middle of feeling bad for yourself are filled with what we’re now calling “toxic positivity.” And I can’t be quiet about it any longer.
Look, I know we all have negative emotions. I’m not suggesting we ignore them. Not even a little bit. But when we throw around terms like “toxic positivity,” it seems like we’re giving people permission to dwell in their misfortune. I’m just not buying it. What good can possibly come from lingering in anger, fear, sadness? How do you feel when you’re having a bad day? Pretty crappy, right? How do you feel when you’re having a good day? Pretty great, right? So what’s the difference? Most of the time, it’s an instance, maybe two, that can take a day filled with life, and sunshine, and fresh air and turn it into a day filled with tears, and anger, and frustration. One bad interaction, one spilled cup of coffee, one misinterpreted text, and you’ve got yourself a lousy mood to round out your rotten day. Then guess what? Your co-workers, friends, significant other, and even your kids get your not so subtle invitation to the pity party. Awesome.
Those who believe in “toxic positivity” will tell you that you need to feel your feelings. And guess what, I think that too. You have to say them out loud, write them down, or allow yourself to think them. But letting yourself, and those you love, hold on to negative moments too long is far more toxic to happiness than helping someone see that their wrong lunch order is not the end of the world, that grief does get easier, that time will heal all wounds.
I believe it takes a strong emotional intelligence to feel your feelings, then let them go, leave them in the moment, and move the F on. It’s not always easy. Sure, a spilled coffee is easier to move on from than a breakup, and a traffic jam isn’t the same as a disagreement that ends a friendship. In the moment, though, both seem pretty damn upsetting. And, of course, it’s OK to express those emotions. It’s more than OK. It’s actually quite critical to our ability to move on. But when we give people permission to hold on to anger, we give them an invitation to experience it over and over and over again.
Don’t believe in the Law Of Attraction? What have you been saying all year? 2020, ugh. WORST. YEAR. EVER. And guess what, you got back exactly what you put out there.
If the Law Of Attraction doesn’t work for you, how about some good old fashioned data. An article published in 2008 by Harvard Medical School helps us see the facts behind having a healthy sense of positivity in life. The report states, “It’s obvious that healthy people live longer than sick people. But If optimism actually improves health, it should also boost longevity — and according to two studies from the U.S. and two from the Netherlands, it does.”
One American study in the early 1960s performed a psychological test for optimism/pessimism, including a complete medical evaluation. When the subjects were rechecked 30 years later, “optimism was linked to longevity; for every 10-point increase in pessimism on the test, the mortality rate rose 19%.”
Another U.S. study looked at students who took a comprehensive personality test when they entered the University of North Carolina in the 1960s. After 40 years, they confirmed that the most pessimistic individuals had a 42% higher death rate than the most optimistic.
Similarly, two Dutch studies showed that staying positive was nothing but positive. In one study, researchers tracked men free of cardiovascular disease and cancer when they were evaluated for dispositional optimism in 1985. Over the next 15 years, the optimists were 55% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the pessimists, even after traditional cardiovascular risk factors and depression were taken into account. The other study from Holland evaluated men and women between the ages of 65 and 85. At the start of the study, people who demonstrated dispositional optimism enjoyed a 45% lower risk of death during a nine-year follow-up period.
So while I agree that recognizing emotion and expressing it are vital to mental health in the moment, I can’t believe this notion that keeping a positive mindset is damaging in any way. And when we allow others to ignore the good in their lives, we not only give them permission to carry anger through this world, we take away the one thing they may just need more than anything…hope.
Sure sometimes it really sucks hearing someone say, “it’s just a bad day, it’s not a bad life,” when all we want to do is wallow in it. But what if that’s exactly what we need to hear? Maybe we don’t need people coddling us in every moment. Perhaps we need the reminder that we woke up this morning, that we get to breathe in the fresh air, especially in a time when millions have lost that gift. Maybe we need to take the time to remind ourselves that it could ALWAYS be worse before we forget the blessings that pour into our lives each and every day.
As this odd year comes to a close, I know I’m filled with a million emotions, as I’m sure you are as well. But instead of bringing them all with me into the new year, I’ve decided to leave the negative stuff behind me. The fear of our global health crisis, the hurt from a relationship that ended unexpectedly, and the uncertainty of running a startup get to stay in 2020. Instead, I’ll hold on to the positive emotions that brought me this far. The pride in bouncing back after the hurt, the joy in reaching healthy milestone after healthy milestone, the excitement of many business accomplishments are the only emotions making it with me to 2021.
If you already believe in the strength of a positive mindset, I hope you’ll keep the GOOD going and never be afraid to remind those you love (including yourself) that there is good in the world. If my ramblings haven’t yet convinced you, I hope you’ll consider giving positivity and optimism a try, even if just for a day. I promise there is so much joy to be found in gratitude. Even if you can’t try it on for yourself, perhaps you’ll lend a little to someone in need. Because rolling into a new year with old baggage is no different than taking out the trash and bringing it right back in again. It stinks.
One Final Thought
I read a quote once that really stuck with me. It’s about positivity and gratitude and the Law of Attraction. I have no idea who said it or the exact words and of course, I can’t find it now for the life of me. But it went something like this:
“Instead of asking yourself what are my rights in this world, perhaps you should be asking what are my responsibilities to this world.”
In those words I find solace in the belief that what we put into the world, we get back. So even though the joy I choose to spread, the forgiveness I choose to grant, the anger I chose to leave behind may be annoying to some, it’s what makes me wake up in the morning feeling hopeful and happy. And there is absolutely nothing toxic about that.