Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her latest book release Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas on her blog, Peregrination.
My favorite take on the popular pablum of “Live, Laugh, Love” was a sign I once encountered at a local art show wherein the typically cursive words and blandly innocuous designs were rendered using taxidermy animals and bones arranged in a delightfully macabre parody. My second favorite was a sticker designed by ipsabel on Redbubble that features a pill bottle underneath an equally flourishing script that reads “Live, Laugh, Lexapro.”
I don’t know when I first heard the term “toxic positivity” but it was sometime after my father was diagnosed with advancing dementia and before my own initial bout with breast cancer. The concept, though, is relatively simple. Toxic positivity is a kind of cultural obsession with the necessity of positive thinking or the belief that people should always put a positive spin on every experience, even the profoundly tragic. It’s a kind of silver lining run amok, wherein instead of acknowledging the good that can sometimes emerge from the bad, you gild the entire cloud in a precious, glittery veneer of happy thoughts. And American culture is utterly obsessed with it.
In her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich notes:
“Americans are a ‘positive’ people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are often baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet emigre poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect that the problem with Americans is that they have ‘never known suffering.’ (Apparently he didn’t know who had invented the blues.) Whether we Americans see it as an embarrassment or a point of pride, being positive — in affect, in mood, in outlook — seems to be engrained in our national character.” (pg. 2)
Happiness is our new virtue.
We’re certainly having our moments with “health and wellness” as virtues, as markers of success and social value, but there’s nothing like “happiness” to make the good, old-fashioned, Protestant Work Ethic proud. While Max Weber’s understanding of the Protestant Work Ethic, an insidious blend of Capitalism and Calvinism that elevates working for profit to a divine calling, was relatively punitive in its outlook and dictated that people should abandon worldly pleasures for hard labor and the accumulation of wealth, consumer capitalism is much more amenable. This is, for the most part of course, because consumerism is all about telling us to want more while positive thinking is there to tell us we deserve more and should have it.
But it’s more than just the Prosperity Gospel, filled with shouting TV evangelists who flatly equate having money with enjoying God’s favor. It’s everywhere. It’s in everything from anti-depressant ads to Mindfulness programs for corporate employees to the #selfcare hashtags on Twitter. Being happy is the last and most laudable goal. Melancholy, worry, and grief are to be avoided at all costs. Or, at least, admitting to them is.
The separation of Church and mental states
Much of the current American ethos of toxic positivity can be traced back to the 1930s, when two men, Norman Vincent Peale, a Methodist minister, and Smiley Blanton, a psychoanalyst, established a religio-psychiatric clinic next door to their church. Their methods then for faith-based psychological healing tended towards the idea that mental and emotional problems had their ultimate roots in a crisis of belief. In this sense, mental distress was about a “falling away” from spiritual truth and became curable only when the individual was properly reoriented back towards the divine plan for their life (in the Protestant reckoning anyway). Misfortune, therefore, became a sign of bad faith, and bad faith the result of bad thinking. This idea was then taken to its larger practical conclusion in Peale’s most famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952.
In Peale’s work and in much of the popular self-help genre that would follow (such as The Secret), “case studies” are used to demonstrate how simply changing one’s thoughts favorably in the face of trouble or tragedy results in good outcomes. These instructions are then designed to help the reader achieve a permanent state of sunny optimism that will not only give them satisfaction in life but will also change their circumstances for the better. A sort of “get back what you put in” mentality wrapped up in a Just World Fallacy that draws a direct line of cause and effect between sadness in the face of adversity and the adversity itself.
Despite its continuing popularity however, The Power of Positive Thinking has long been criticized by mental health experts and theologians alike. While their criticism has ranged from the book’s verifiability to its controversial links with Christianity, the ultimate concern about this approach is that it quickly becomes tantamount to lying to yourself. Which is to say that no matter how many times you tell yourself that you, your situation, and your problems are getting better, in the absence of evidence to that claim, it’s just as much of a delusion as thinking that everything is a catastrophe. Furthermore, it seems to have a negative effect on overall critical thinking, since constant positivity also tends to discourage people from making hard choices or tackling the most difficult parts of social or emotional change by actually attempting to solve their problems as opposed to just trying to smile them away.
Buy me some rose-colored glasses
Businesses and corporations have also latched onto toxic positivity in an especially problematic way: by reframing employee and client unhappiness as their own fault for not having a better mindset.
Years ago, before I became an anthropologist, I worked for a large medical software company as a technical writer. This particular company also happens to be well known for the fact that it hired a number of Disney’s Imagineers to design and build its Midwestern campus and frequently incorporated things like koi ponds, meditation gardens, themed cafeteria food, and tube slides to “increase employee contentment,” “reduce stress,” and “make the world a better place.” Taking inspiration from Google and other Silicon Valley technology companies, this organization then also touted its workplace whimsy and yoga classes as evidence of just how much it cared about employee “happiness.” With such high rates of burn-out and turn-over though, it turned out that what the employees really wanted, and really needed, were shorter hours, less mandated travel, and more vacation days or sick leave.
But those things result in less profits. And less profits, as we’ve seen, mean less virtue and instead of offering a meaningful response to the demands of its workforce, this company opted instead to build a new convention center with stadium seating to better facilitate a sense of “togetherness” between administrators, customers, and coders. Last I heard, not much else had changed. Similarly, Amazon has recently announced the launch of its new employee wellness program called AmaZen with the intended goal of reducing warehouse accidents and injuries with “guided meditation videos” and “positive affirmations.” Interestingly, it says nothing about actually making changes to warehouse processes or layout or, you know, possibly increasing breaks and improving overall working conditions. Rather, it just seems like one more way to wring out a little extra productivity all the while making “good health” the fault and responsibility of the worker.
In these pandemic times, I daresay it’s also precisely what continues the drive towards claims that labor shortages in the service industries are the result of “people who don’t want to work” rather than low wages, customer abuse, inflexible hours, poor benefits, lack of childcare, automation, ongoing disability or illness, and a rising death toll. Even now, failing companies blame their instability on the virtues of these potential yet non-existent employees who won’t step up and hand over the cheap labor to which their business models are entitled and which will grant suffering workers the success of being happy again.
I’m not OK, you’re not OK
“In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.”Bright-Sided, pg 3
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that if I just stay focused, I’ll be “back” in no time. Whether it was in reference to completing my PhD or to undergoing cancer treatment for the second time, I’m well aware of the implication that if I am not constantly and outwardly grateful for what I do have, I endanger my future and everything that I might have. Or, if nothing else, any further misfortune I experience will be treated by those around me as, in the end, my own fault. A comfort for them in that they can avoid such issues themselves if they just think joyfully about it hard enough.
Toxic positivity is basically magic, as I see it: a ritual management of misfortune meant to cast off bad experiences through mystical means. Disillusioned and anxious, we leverage positive thoughts and “staying upbeat” to change what we otherwise cannot change and to bend the arc of destiny to our will. But the trade-off is that we risk delegitimizing pain, fear, anxiety, and hardship just as much as we risk missing the warning signs that the worst is still to come. This is not to say that positivity is always bad or that it can’t help motivate us towards a better future. Of course it can. But it’s high time we think very hard about why the answer to “How are you doing?” is never supposed to be “not OK.”