The Cure for Toxic Positivity
‘Hang in there!’ can do more harm than good
When my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 52, I was flooded with emails, calls, and in-person pep talks from friends and acquaintances. Anyone who’d ever met me, it seemed, was eager to offer up a platitude. “Think positive,” they told me. “It will be okay. He’ll get through this.”
But his cancer didn’t go away, and neither did the deluge of optimism that flowed over both of us — my dad, the patient, and me, his sole caregiver. It was wearing him down, and me along with him.
During one visit, family acquaintances kept steering the conversation back to a supposed Amazonian miracle cure they’d read about. My dad should try it, they said. You never know. When I pointed out that he wasn’t exactly in a condition to travel to South America, they suggested I go hunt it down and bring it back.
That was when I finally snapped and asked them to leave.
Relentless focus on positivity isn’t just ineffective. Research has shown that it’s actually harmful.
I know they were well-meaning. Everyone who offered us encouragement was. I also know I’ve done the same thing over the years, insisting to loved ones going through a hard time that they should stay strong, that everything would get better. In the moment, confronted with someone else’s distress, it’s a natural instinct to try verbally willing it away.
But that relentless focus on positivity — what Kate Bowler, a Duke Divinity School professor and former cancer patient, described in her memoir Everything Happens for a Reason as “the tyranny of prescriptive joy” — isn’t just ineffective. Research has shown that it’s actually harmful.
One 2012 study found that encouraging people to push away their negative emotions often has the opposite effect, making them feel bad about feeling bad, in addition to whatever else they were already going through. A 2005 study found that relentlessly focusing on the positive during times of stress — what the authors call “avoidance coping” — increased the risk of depressive symptoms later on. And there are plenty of other examples out there pointing to the same conclusion: Forced…