Trying to Stay Optimistic Is Doing More Harm Than Good

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When her patient started talking about sick notes, neuropsychologist Judy Ho decided to intervene. Her client, a wildly successful entrepreneur, was rich, happily married, and well-regarded by his peers.

The problem was the days when he felt depressed and run-down but unable to admit it. The only way to address it, he felt, was to regress, like a schoolboy, and look for permission from a doctor to regroup. “He knew he wasn’t sick, but he’d go in and make something up,” she says, “just so he could take a day off and be OK with himself.”

She recognized he was suffering from a surging contemporary malaise. “He always had to demonstrate his worth to people,” she continues. “He was thinking, ‘I must exude this image of success and a happy life that everybody has come to know about me, and I don’t want to ever change that image.’ That’s toxic positivity.”

Call it FONO, or fear of a negative outlook. Also known as “dismissive positivity,” it’s expressed as an overbearing cheerfulness no matter how bad things are, a pep that denies emotional oxygen to anything but a rictus grin.

You see it on Instagram, where the affective filter is always upbeat, usually followed by the hashtag #blessed. You hear it from the SoulCycle instructor exhorting every rider to swaggeringly sweat through the pain. It’s available from the newly anointed chief creative officer for Vital Proteins, actress Jennifer Aniston, who claims that renewal isn’t only a result of its powders: Instead, “it’s within us.” You might even recognize it in the boss who insists that colleagues start every Zoom meeting by sharing a piece of good news to help keep moods buoyant amid the gloom.

Think of this mindset as one that responds to all human anxiety, or sadness, with uncompromising optimism. It can be found in sentences that start with those negating words “At least,” which are followed by a suggestion that however bad you’re feeling, at least you’ve got plenty else that should offset and outweigh it. Even the oppressive insistence that we should love our body, no matter what, can tip into upbeat intolerance by implying that it’s not OK to want to work on tummy folds or laugh lines.

FONO can power any delusional self-belief, whether it’s politicians trying to spin their way out of Covid-19 failures with platitudes about strength or hucksters selling a chance to get ahead. The Federal Trade Commission has reported an uptick in Ponzi schemes during the pandemic—70% higher in the second quarter of 2020 than the year before. Ordinary Americans, casting around for inspiration and reassurance, became prime targets for these peddlers of perkiness.

Such magical thinking has paralleled the rise of professionals hired to be a personal cheerleader. Membership of the International Coach Federation, the life coaching body, has soared from almost 4,700 worldwide in 2001 to more than 41,000 today.

The ‘Achievement Treadmill’

Successful people are the most likely to fall prey to this way of thinking, says Naomi Torres-Mackie. As head of research at the Mental Health Coalition and a practicing psychologist at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, she works extensively with patients trapped on what she calls “the achievement treadmill.” That’s where self-doubt and reflection are elbowed aside in favor of a gung-ho, can-do spirit.

Take the recently married financier she treated. At the pinnacle of his career, his sole identifiable problem was sleeplessness. As he worked with Torres-Mackie, the Wall Streeter recognized the cause was his singular fixation during waking hours on how he compared with others.

“The only questions he asked himself were ‘How much success am I having, and what is my boss thinking?’ ” she says. “He was so focused on putting out a picture-perfect happy and positive image, it left him no room at all to process and digest the tough stuff.” Only after lying down at night would those concerns come to the fore and keep him awake. His treatment afterward centered on breaking the connection he’d forged between seeming happy and being successful.

For the current generation, the origins of this emotional cure-all lie in the 1990s, when then-president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, posited that pessimism is a learned behavior. Therefore it both could and should be avoided.

That observation snowballed into bestsellers such as The Secret, first published in 2006 by Australian TV executive-turned-author Rhonda Byrne. It was popularized after Oprah Winfrey championed its ethos. That breakout bunkum bible was essentially built on claims that the power of positive thinking would provide whatever you want, be it a baby or a Mercedes-Benz. This past summer it was turned into a straight-to-video movie starring Katie Holmes.

Contemporary corporate culture exacerbates these tendencies. Pre-pandemic, employees were urged to be happy because they worked in an office, perhaps, with pingpong tables and free lunches. Now, in a work-from-home world, they’re urged to be grateful simply to have a job.

Whitney Goodman, a psychotherapist in Miami, explains that such workplaces create a Catch-22 where employees aren’t able to raise concerns for fear they won’t be seen as a team player or worthy of a promotion; stuck with unexpressed concerns, they’re more likely to fail in the end. (Her new book, Toxic Positivity, will be released under an imprint of Penguin Random House later this year.)


Clinical reports underscore her thesis. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology echoed previous research when it found that people felt more sad when they were expected to conceal such emotions. Brett Ford, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and one of the study’s authors, says tackling toxic positivity requires staring down, rather than past, uncomfortable feelings. “Notice them, let them be, try not to push them away,” she says, “and they will pass. Emotions are supposed to be relatively short-lived experiences.”

So, How To Cope?

Ho, the neuropsychologist, has an unexpected suggestion to help calibrate a Pollyanna perspective: a session watching Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out, which animates and dramatizes human emotions. “One of the best antidotes to toxic positivity is reexamining your value system and understanding that some of the best moments in life, when you truly feel good, are full of mixed emotions,” she says. “And that’s what we should be embracing as human beings.”

Along with yourself, allowing others to express negativity is vital, too. Banish the words “at least” from your emotional vocabulary, Ho recommends, and instead focus on reflective listening. “Repeat back what you think you heard, without adding anything to it. You don’t always have to Band-Aid something, or ask, ‘What can I do?’ ”

It’s no surprise that Byrne would also return now. Her sequel, The Greatest Secret, came out in November. Read it, the blurbs tout, and you can remove all negativity—as if doing so should be a central goal in life. (More than 80% of Inc.’s user reviews gave it five stars. It would be too negative to be negative, it seems.)

“This year, with crisis on top of crisis, we’ve gone back to the instinctive ways of coping pounded into us from a young age—that we need to be positive to get through this,” Goodman says. “It’s true that we need to have some awareness this isn’t going to last forever, but we also have to attend to the fact that, well, this isn’t normal.”

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