In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Odysseus finds himself having to navigate a ship down a strait that sits between two sea monsters: Scylla, a six-headed carnivore perched on the cliffs who likes to snap up sailors in her jaws, and Charybdis, a whirlpool that can easily suck an entire boat and crew down to unsurvivable depths. Years of watching the evolution of positive psychology — in articles, books, and, most impactfully, social media posts — have left me wondering whether Americans are destined to approach happiness as a similarly precarious, if not entirely impossible, tightrope walk.
Positive psychology is a branch of the study of the human mind and behavior that focuses on positive emotion, traits, experience, and institutions. It tends to be about optimism and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. Just listen to Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.
“[W]hen we invite negative (or dysfunctional) thoughts to hang around, we empower them,” she writes in “Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted.” Her book is one piece of the $10.4 billion self-improvement market that has made happiness and positivity “both a goal and an obligation,” according to Whitney Goodman.
Goodman isn’t the first to write a book on toxic positivity, usually defined as an obsession with maintaining a positive mindset, but hers, “Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy,” represents the culmination of years spent advocating against it via her influential Instagram account @sitwithwhit.
These new books epitomize two poles in the debate over positive psychology. So who’s right?
The basics of toxic positivity
Some believe positive psychology can be boiled down to a fake-it-’til-you-make-it style of rebranding. “Our obsession with positivity is all around us,” Goodman writes: “Struggles are now ‘opportunities.’ Triggers are ‘teachers.’ Grief is now ‘love with nowhere to go.’ Weaknesses are actually ’emerging strengths.'”
Bonior’s book would seem to exemplify this thinking. She encourages readers to “channel your uncomfortable feelings into something progressive or creative.” When faced with “embarassments, setbacks, emotions that feel like weaknesses, and incidents we wish we could do over,” she suggests asking oneself, “How can you turn those into something that matters in a positive way?” and “If you pretended this feeling was a teacher, what would its lesson be?”