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What is the Difference Between Optimism and Toxic Positivity?



By: Marie Miguel Biography


With the rise of recent discussion about the benefits of gratitude, many individuals may feel the pressure to begin reframing their mindsets to become more positive and dwelling less on life’s challenges. While maintaining a positive attitude and expressing gratitude can be beneficial, it can become harmful if taken to the extreme. The idea that one should remain unwaveringly positive regardless of the difficult experiences they are experiencing can be referred to as toxic positivity. 


So what is the fine line between staying optimistic and when the overemphasis on positivity might become toxic? In this article, we will explore these questions, and discuss strategies for cultivating healthy optimism in a way that supports your well-being and meaningful connections with others.


Defining Toxic Positivity


Toxic positivity is the insistence on maintaining a positive attitude in any circumstance, denying the presence of ‘negative’ emotions (such as sadness, anger, fear, grief or pain). There are many ways in which toxic positivity is embedded in our society. Maybe you have shared something difficult you were going through with someone, only to be met with the response ‘it could be worse’ or ‘be grateful for what you have.’ Toxic positivity can also come in the form of pushing down our painful emotions, believing that we should instead focus on the positives in our life. It can make us feel like perhaps we are doing something wrong if we are unable to ‘just be happy’.


While toxic positivity serves as a coping mechanism to shield against uncomfortable feelings, it can do more harm than good. The ability to experience the full range of human emotions is essential for our psychological well-being. Several studies have revealed that suppressing uncomfortable emotions can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and worsening mental health overall. We also miss out on opportunities for growth, as emotions provide critical information about needs that may be unmet and changes we might make in our lives. 


On the other hand, maintaining a balanced, optimistic attitude can be very healthy in the midst of navigating personal challenges, as well as supporting others in what they may be going through. 


For more information about optimism and other mental health topics, visit BetterHelp.


Cultivating Healthy Optimism


Researchers have noted that to combat toxic positivity is to cultivate an attitude of ‘tragic optimism.’ This is the idea that suffering in life is inevitable and it can be a catalyst for our growth. It emphasizes the importance of embracing painful experiences and emotions, and viewing them as an opportunity to seek meaning, develop new perspectives and become better people. The basis of toxic positivity involves a forced sense of gratitude or positivity. Conversely, embracing ‘tragic optimism’ leads individuals to become truly more grateful and happier- not by avoiding their pain, but by welcoming it and learning from it.


The main difference between toxic positivity and genuine optimism is the ability to stay rooted in the reality of one’s circumstances without dismissing the presence of their authentic emotions.


Genuine optimism…


  • Acknowledges the entirety of a person’s emotional experience, while still identifying room for learning and growth


  • Recognizes that current circumstances may be difficult or painful, but it won’t last forever and there is the ability for things to be different in the future


  • Avoids the extremes that a situation has to be either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’-and instead allows the room for the complexity of human experience (for example: it is possible for someone to be experiencing grief and gratitude at the same time)


Learning to Connect with our Emotions


Some people may experience difficulties connecting with their emotions, especially if they have become accustomed to pushing down their feelings. There are many strategies you might consider for becoming more attuned to your emotions. Journaling is one method that can be helpful for labeling our emotions. You might also find it beneficial to seek out the support of a mental health professional. Connecting with a therapist can provide a safe space for you to become more comfortable identifying and expressing your emotions, even ones that may be difficult. They can help to remind you that the full range of your feelings are valid, that sadness, anger, grief, and fear are a normal part of the human experience that are meant to be explored, not ignored.

Marie Miguel Biography

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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