‘Good Vibes Only’: Why Toxic Positivity Is Slowly Killing Us

Lambert here: Here at Naked Capitalism, “toxic positivity” is not problem. But in case you ever encounter it….

By Nicole Karlis, an Oakland-based staff writer at Salon, where she writes about health, science, tech and feminism. Republished from Alternet.

In the past decade, Americans have become peculiarly fixated on the idea of maintaining a constant positive mindset. The idea is most epitomized by the phrase “good vibes only,” which is now emblazoned on clothing, cutesy mass-market home decor, neon signs and on many an influencer’s social media posts in hashtag form.

Though well-intentioned, the message — and arguably, the positive psychology movement that underlies the sentiment — has veered into the realm of toxic positivity. The term toxic positivity refers to a mentality in which, no matter how awful a situation may be, one is still told to still find a silver lining. Laid off from your job during the pandemic? The toxically positive might reply, “at least you didn’t die of COVID.” Did your spouse leave you? Toxic positivity would respond, “well, look on the bright side, they could have cheated on you.”

These kinds of messages often lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or may be an avoidance mechanism. In other words, maintaining a “good vibes only” mindset is not particularly helpful nor psychologically healthy. Humans are meant to feel and embrace a full range of emotions — not to be happy robots all the time, especially when bad things happen. And yet, the phrase “good vibes only” is consistently splashed across walls, screens, and doormats, and has become a sort of millennial and Gen Z mantra.

Yet amid this cacophony of meaningless positivity, writer Nora McInerny is a loud dissenter. McInerny, known for her podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” is leading the movement to embrace the darker sides of life — the so-called “bad vibes,” things like death, depression, and the overall messiness that accompanies humanity. McInerny’s new book, a humorous collection of essays titled “Bad Vibes Only (And Other Things I Bring to the Table)” is full of these kinds of cringe-y moments — spanning from the author’s young adulthood in the aughts to her being a parent today. And (thankfully), unlike self-help books that line positive psychology shelves at the bookstore, these stories don’t typically end by looking on the bright side.

Salon interviewed McInerny to talk about America’s obsession with being positive, the state of mental health and parenting.

I read your book at the end of my pregnancy and it really resonated with me. I couldn’t handle any so-called “good vibes” when the smallest tasks felt monumental — I struggled to even walk around my house. I needed your bad vibes. But I’m curious what motivated you to want to write a book with a collection of essays themed around “bad vibes?”

So I was writing a lot of stories, a lot of essays, and the more I looked at them as a whole, the clearer it was an essay collection not a memoir. And this was going to be almost the opposite of all of the self-help books that arrive on my doorstep — books that are designed to make the reader believe that there is some internal flaw with them, and that if only they do these five things, build this habit, or whatever, they’ll feel better.

I wanted to write something that was realistic, that was relatable, and that was reflective of what it has meant to me to be a senior millennial coming of age in one of the tackiest pop culture moment. In a time when the pendulum swung from a culture that provided a path towards eating disorders for girls my age to body positivity, from beauty at whatever cost to aging gracefully or naturally, from being young and free to being someone’s mom. I wanted to create something that didn’t try to tie up the messy experience of life into neat life lessons.

I didn’t sit down and think “How can I write a book that’s a response to a popular Home Goods sign?” But every time I see a “good vibes only” sign or sticker, I know I’m not welcome there. I should see myself out.

But what if it’s Target?

Oh, I will leave that aisle. Honestly, I will not shop the signs at Target. I will not shop the message tees at Target. No, no, no.

Yeah, I get it. I definitely got a sense that the book was expanding on your work on grief. And then also I thought it was a response to all the “love and light” messaging — I say that in quotes — that’s pushed so much by self-help influencers on social media.

Yes, love and light positivity. There’s nothing wrong with positivity. I actually think I’m generally a pretty positive person, pretty upbeat, unless I’m falling down this spiral staircase of my own depression, which happens regularly. But toxic positivity, it’s so pervasive. It will find its way in, in all of these sorts of new and different ways — old and new. Someone might say “millions of people around the world died of this thing, but at least you didn’t— right?” Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot of people who are fine after the past couple years.

Why do you think that there has been so much focus on good vibes and this rise in toxic positivity in our culture lately when, like you mentioned, there are a lot of people who are struggling right now?

I mean, when one’s problems feel so big that they’re untenable — what could be an easier escape hatch than choosing to just feel good or choosing to narrow your focus down to the things that you can control, and hoping that the thing that you can control is yourself? If that’s the only problem, well, that’s a much easier problem to fix. And if the only thing you have to worry about is yourself, well, that’s a lot easier than thinking about the fact that it feels like humanity is in its final season. I don’t blame anybody. It always feels better to just be happy. People would prefer that.

I’m always perplexed by the people that preach that if you think positively, good things will happen to you, or you can “manifest” something. And it makes me laugh because an actual therapist will tell you that you are not your thoughts. And you kind of mention that in that one essay, how you’re really just observing your thoughts like clouds. What do you make of this focus on manifesting? And if you think positively, good things will happen to you?

I think it’s total bullshit. Thoughts don’t become things. And I also know from experience that it’s not even a fine line. Of course, there’s a line between feeling your feelings, dwelling on your feelings, fixating on your feelings, navel gazing, getting stuck in them, actual depression. But actual depression is not a matter of you not thinking enough happy thoughts. Anxiety is just not, “let’s think of some different thoughts.” And the number of people practicing unlicensed therapy as so-called “life coaches” is extremely alarming. And I’m pretty sure in 20 or 30 years, we’re going to look back at that and think, “what the fuck?”

I’m curious, what do you think is missing from the popular conversation around mental health in America and finding a balance between having a positive mindset, but also embracing the reality of things can be really sh**ty and crappy sometimes?

I think intersectionality is lacking. There’s a book that I read that I thought was the most thoughtful little book that I guess would be categorized as self-help, but I’m not sure how she would categorize it. It’s called “How to Keep House While Drowning.” And it just acknowledges in so many ways the way that we’re different, the way that it is hard to care for yourself if you have a disability, if you have a different mental health state than your neighbor or your sister, if your community is really strong, if you have a lot of support or you don’t. And this, I think easy fixes work when you flatten down the human experience to you either do it or you don’t. And it’s just never that simple. And I remember when my husband died, I truly wondered why things were so hard for me.

I was like, ‘It’s been four months. Why am I so sad?” Because your husband just died, you clown. I’d ask ‘What is wrong with you?’ Of course what was wrong with me is I felt this undue kind of pressure and influence from our culture, which was like, “come on girl, you gotta get up, wash your face, get moving.” And I listened. I laid in bed and I listened to a Tony Robbins book. Are you kidding me? What could that man possibly have to tell a widowed 31-year-old single mom who’s on the cusp of moving in with her own mom, about anything? And I was like, I have to get my brain right. I have to fix my brain. I have to just think differently. And the stories and bad vibes only are not all that. They’re really not all that traumatic.

I can totally relate. When I lost my dad a few years ago and I remember going through that with grief too, being like, ‘Why don’t I feel better yet?’ And it’s like, there is all this pressure on us to feel good. Even as a new mom right now, some days, I feel sad. I don’t feel like myself. But it’s hard to reckon with what I’m told is the “happiest time of my life.” But like I went through a very long labor that ended in a c-section, and that was hard.

Your body was just literally sawed open and they had to take out your organs. All your hormones are racing and people are like, “Yeah. So you love it?”

I liked your essay about having kids on social media, and not posting their photos. Aside from privacy, I’m just curious, are there other reasons? Are there other reasons that you decide to mostly keep your kids off social media unless you have their permission?

I do not think anymore that my children can consent to that at all. If I have a hard time conceiving of what it means for something to go viral — and I do — I have a hard time imagining what it means that a million people saw a post. What does that mean? What is the permanence of that? I truly have a hard time fathoming that. There’s no way for a five-year-old or a nine-year-old or even a 16-year-old to possibly understand what that means. And it’s not just for their privacy, from the size of the audience that I have, which compared to a lot of people is very small, even modest at best. But it’s for the fact that they deserve to make informed decisions about how their life is presented publicly.

Totally. My last question, kind of a selfish one, is: What advice would you give new moms right now?

My advice for new moms is to take almost no advice. There are so many people in your ear, on your screen constantly. Take almost none of it. Take almost none of it. Take what you like and leave for rest. And the one thing that I wish I would’ve done is accept any and all help and take it f**king easy. I brought my two-day-old baby to a public radio studio to work on a podcast. You feel this compulsion to do these things and prove that you still have worth, because the world around you is challenging your worth. And telling you that the thing that you just did, have a baby, create a human life, is really only worth six weeks of half-pay and rest — if you have a full-time job.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. PlutoniumKun

    I’ve never understood the focus on good vibes. Sure, it can be useful in some circumstances for people to be reminded that our world can be beautiful and minor setbacks are just that. Getting caught in a cycle of negative feelings is not a good idea.

    But the epicureans and stoics were clearly correct. Its ok to feel bad about bad things and trying to run away from the negative things life throws at us is ultimately self defeating.

    1. .Tom

      “Good vibes only” is like an admission of the limits of self help, stated as a slogan.

      The whole culture and business of self help is intrinsically repulsive. Self help is a consumer product that says we need to modify ourselves to better cope with the inhumanity produced by the individualism that a consumer economy demands.

    2. Adam Eran

      Buddha’s first noble truth: “Life is ‘dukkha'” … If your shoulder is dislocated, it’s ‘dukkha’ too.

      From The Road Less Traveled:

      “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

      “Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been specially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.

      “Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?

      “Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.

      “What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one….Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning…As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Those things that hurt, instruct.’ It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems.

      “Most of us are not so wise. Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain….

      “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness. Since most of us have this tendency to a greater or lesser degree, most of us are mentally ill to a greater or lesser degree, lacking complete mental health. Some of us will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid our problems and the suffering they cause, proceeding far afield from all that is clearly good and sensible in order to try to find an easy way out, building the most elaborate fantasies in which to live, sometimes to the total exclusion of reality. In the succinctly elegant words of Carl Jung, ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.’

      “But the substitute itself ultimately becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was designed to avoid….And without healing, the human spirit begins to shrivel.

      “Therefore let us inculcate in ourselves and in our children the means of achieving mental and spiritual health. By this I mean let us teach ourselves and our children the necessity for suffering and the value thereof, the need to face problems directly and to experience the pain involved. I have stated that discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. It will become clear that these tools are techniques of suffering, means by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way as to work them through and solve them successfully, learning and growing in the process. When we teach ourselves and our children discipline, we are teaching them and ourselves how to suffer and also how to grow.

      “What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing. As will be evident, these are not complex tools whose application demands extensive training. To the contrary, they are simple tools, and almost all children are adept in their use by the age of ten. Yet presidents and kings will often forget to use them, to their own downfall. The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools. Therefore, after analyzing each of these tools, we shall…examine the will to use them, which is love.”

      “…So if your goal is to avoid pain and escape suffering, I would not advise you to seek higher levels of consciousness or spiritual evolution. First, you cannot achieve them without suffering, and second, insofar as you do achieve them, you are likely to be called on to serve in ways more painful to you, or at least demanding of you, than you can now imagine. Then why desire to evolve at all, you may ask. If you ask this question, perhaps you do not know enough of joy…”

      by M. Scott Peck, M.D

  2. crantok

    I very rarely encounter toxic positivity here in the UK. As one stand up comedian (can’t remember who, James Acaster maybe) says, the typical response to, “How are you?” here is, “Not too bad,” as if there is an amount of bad that is just right.

    One thing that pisses me off is the conflation of Positive Psychology and positive thinking. The latter is part of the toxicity discussed. The former is the result of a research drive instigated by Martin Seligman, partly inspired by the fact that working with CBT (i.e. reframing negative cognitions) sometimes left clients with more realistic ways of seeing the world but with no emotional improvement. In other words, positive psychology was partly a reaction to the primarily cognitive solutions that were en vogue amongst psychologists, the opposite of how it is often described.

    1. Cancyn

      I often reply to “How are you?” with ‘A-OK’ or ‘just fine’ or ‘not too bad’ – any of which can solicit an inquiry about what is wrong. ‘Great’ is about the only response a lot of people will accept.

      By the way, Barbara Ehrenreich was on to the positive toxicity crap quite a while ago. See her book Bright Sided, published in 2007. It is about her experiences after a breast cancer diagnosis https://www.npr.org/2009/10/13/113758696/bright-sided-when-happiness-doesnt-help

      This word salad-y reasoning for writing the book discussed here put me off: “I wanted to write something that was realistic, that was relatable, and that was reflective of what it has meant to me to be a senior millennial coming of age in one of the tackiest pop culture moment. In a time when the pendulum swung from a culture that provided a path towards eating disorders for girls my age to body positivity, from beauty at whatever cost to aging gracefully or naturally, from being young and free to being someone’s mom. I wanted to create something that didn’t try to tie up the messy experience of life into neat life lessons.” Maybe it is my stoic WASP-y nature but for good or ill, I think we talk entirely too much about our ‘feels’.

      1. Alex Cox

        I’m surprised McInerny didn’t mention Barbara Ehrenreich, since she is repeating the thesis of Bright-Sided. It’s an excellent book, and this isn’t the first time someone has repeated what Ehrenreich wrote without crediting her. In England, the pompous Guardianista Polly Toynbee read Nickel & Dimed and wrote her own book on the same subject.

        Wasn’t Ehrenreich also the person who came up with the term PMC, way back in 1977?

      2. Kouros

        Yes, truly. I have the same experience with most of my Canadian colleagues. Saying OK or worst So-So is seen as bad manners. For the life of me, I cannot translate in my mind the “How are you?!” greeting as a true greeting, when the expectation is only “Great, how are you?!” why not simply Hi! & Hi!

      1. britzklieg

        My response is often – “Do you really want to know?”

        …most people don’t, and I get to avoid vacuous conversation.

        1. Wukchumni

          Occasionally a fast food worker @ the drive thru will implore me to ‘have a nice day!’ and I smile brightly at them showing most if not all pearly whites and say…

          Thanks, but I had other plans…

          1. Tet Vet

            Had a friend that liked to answer: “Been better but got over it.” A good laugh can be therapeutic.

              1. ambrit

                My usual response is: “So far, so good.”
                I find that the “How are you?” mantra at interactions in public is just that, a mantra, an invocation of a minor social deity.
                Tangentially, I have noticed that the truly interested and interesting check-out people do not last very long in those positions.
                To be heard soon over the loudspeakers in the Bigg Boxx Store: “Cyborg 216, come to Line Four. Consumer line density has exceeded standard parameters.”

              2. Amfortas the hippie

                my standard automatic respone is “we’re working on it”…which confused all and sundry at first(now they’re used to it)
                and around here, it’s “have a blessed day!!” with a toothy smile(tm).
                my eyes hurt from the rolling, and i’d rather just stay on the farm and interact with fowl.

      2. Michael Fiorillo

        Yes, I immediately thought about Ehrenreich’s eloquent writing on this topic, which was both broader and deeper.

        Also unmentioned was the fact that much of what’s driving this mentality often has an economic source and consequences. Remember all the stories of banking analysts who were fired for refusing to drink the mortgage happy juice prior to 2007-8? Brooksly Born? Or the celebration of “hustle culture,” which is in fact a response to insufficient wages?

        And you can bet your bottom dollar that the painfully few reality-based people in the White House and National Security State who question heroic Ukraine’s victorious destiny are constantly forcing themselves to shut up, lest they be purged for negativity.

      3. Peter Whyte

        From the film Wall Street 2: “How are you? Fine, things are good, I’m fine, things are bad, I’m fine.” The next day Mr. “fine” jumps in front of a subway train.

      4. Tet Vet

        Had a friend who liked to answer: “Been better but got over it.” A good laugh is therapeutic IMO.

    2. .Tom

      When I moved to the USA in 1995 I didn’t know how to answer the question. Dishonestly saying the expected “good” never seemed like something I could learn.

      I seem to have settled on two ways to answer. One is “I’m alright” and just let the other person deal with that, usually it’s ignored. The other, if I’m in a sarcastic mood and think I can get away with it is “Never better. How about you?”

      1. Jason Boxman

        The other annoying question is “What do you do?” always thrust in your face at networking events. I got the impression this is also an American thing.

      2. David in Santa Cruz

        “Never better! is generally my chipper response. On the rare occasion that the person asking “How-ayya?” seems to get it, I’ll add, “It’s never better…”

        Of course, if the person is simply making the inquiry as a requirement of their job, such as a checker or a barrista, I’ll give them a simple “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious”, which is always good for a chortle.

        I’ve begun to see these “No Bad Vibes” exhortations in failing public institutions such as CalPERS and the Washington State Ferries. Heaven forbid that the public should complain about poor service and demand that their elected officials end the stripping of these government-run utilities of promised resources!

        1. ddt

          Standard (and honest) response to “how are you?” for me is “Just muddling through.”

          99% ignored :)

      3. fairleft

        A. Hey X, how are you?
        B. Pretty good, how ’bout you?
        A. Not bad. … Hey, did you hear about …

        Everything before ‘Hey, did you …’ is content-free polite filler.

  3. YuShan

    Few people have real friends that are actually prepared to support you if things go bad for you. Your “friends” will turn away from you if you are not “positive”, because they don’t want to be bothered with your troubles. So you are more or less forced to adopt this fake positivity attitude, otherwise your “friends” will walk away from you.

    Of course the other side of this is that in terms of solutions to your problems, you are the only one who can deal with them, so you better pick yourself up and deal with it. But we shouldn’t have to fake our emotions. Accept that bad times are also part of life and that they will happen from time to time.

    1. SocalJimObjects

      It’s not just friends, nowadays family members often act that way too. There’s no time for empathy or anything else that will get people away from their cell phones.

  4. Harry Shearer

    A name that should be mentioned in this context is Norman Vincent Peale. To a couple (or more?) of earlier generations, “The Power of Positive Thinking”–the book and the movement–was a powerful cultural force in the second half of the 20th century. And, unlike the current iteration, it had the added power of being wrapped in a penumbra of religion.

    1. Wukchumni

      Well, speaking as a Christian, I would like to say that I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.

      Adlai Stevenson
      Opening sentence of remarks to a Baptist convention in Texas during 1952 Presidential campaign. In his introduction the host had said that Stevenson had been asked to speak “just as a courtesy, because Dr. Norman Vincent Peale has already instructed us to vote for your opponent.”

      1. Appleseed

        Author Gary Lachmann’s post-Blondie career has involved research of and writing about Esoteric/Hermetic/Occult history. His book, Dark Star Rising: Magic and Power in the Age of Trump examines Trump’s debt to Peale, which he describes in an essay.

        “Other items soon came to light. One was Trump’s own devotion to a Christianised form of magic, Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking.” Trump absorbed Peale’s central dictum – borrowed from Karl Menninger – that “facts don’t matter, only our attitude toward them does.” With the inauguration, both of his presidency and the era of “post truth” and “alternative facts,” we can get an idea of Trump’s attitude. Oddly, as I point out in the book, leftish academic fads like deconstructionism and postmodernism, which reject any notion of a stable “truth” or “reality,” ironically paved the way for a populist demagogue.”

        So all this “You create your own reality” New Thought focus has given US culture is a “toxic positivity” that poisons the ecosystems upon which life depends. The people of Flint or Anniston, AL don’t need positive thinking to fix polluted water supplies, but I don’t know if “our democracy” is up to the challenge of providing real world solutions. And that’s not a happy thought.

        1. semper loquitur

          “Oddly, as I point out in the book, leftish academic fads like deconstructionism and postmodernism, which reject any notion of a stable “truth” or “reality,” ironically paved the way for a populist demagogue.”

          Thanks for this. I’m fond of saying that when nothing means anything, power will dictate meaning. What better example than when a president tells you the economy is fine while all around you everything decays or the media tells you we need war for peace?

          1. caucus99percenter

            Or suddenly “experts” are in your face, popping up in every context, insisting that initiation into the mysteries of minority sexual preferences is good even for little kids, or that men can be pregnant?

    2. phichibe

      Hi Harry!

      I’m listening to Le Show and thought I’d peruse NC when I spot this. I’m one tile away from Harry Shearer Bingo ;-)

      Adding to your excellent observation (suck up alert!) it’s worth mentioning that according to many news reports (and maybe biographers, but I wouldn’t read a biography on the gentleman in question) when Donald Trump was a child his father would occasionally cart the family off to NVP’s ‘church’ in Manhattan for inculcation in that era’s version of the Prosperity Gospel. So among other things we can credit Peale with giving DJT his moral compass. Thanks, Norman.

    3. Petter

      I thought of Peale too. Harold Bloom in his book The American Religion states that Americans sensibility is Gnostic. Peele, Silva Mind Control, EST, Tony Robbins etc etc.
      On a quest, to get that edge.

    4. Cat Burglar

      Everyone I met connected with the punk scene of the 70s and early 80s unanimously rejected the pose of positivity, and they still do. There were lots of derisive jokes about positive thinking, and lots of good songs about it. After being rejected for not conforming to the injunction to be positive, you felt like you had found your people.

      Living in deindustrializing Ohio, and being among the demonstrators at the Kent State Massacre, the members of DEVO made the now–classic song against the pose of positivity.

  5. upstater

    Having lost a daughter to a drunk driver, caring for a son with schizophrenia and our business destroyed by Fortune 500 industry group through intellectual property “misappropriation” and 5 years of litigation (even when you win, you lose), good vibes are occasionally there, but in a distinct minority. How does one escape personal traumas? If I was to believe my doctor, “there’s a pill for that” (been there, done that, it doesn’t work).

    While a very few can understand, our experiences in the past decade of this has been most people simply aren’t interested in hearing our concerns more than in a few short conversations. Then you never hear from them again. Mind you, it’s not like we’re obsessively whining about things in the past or the present challenges with a schizophrenic. Rather, it colors one’s outlook in general. Sure we laugh and can have fun. But the experiences never go away in our mind. What happened to our family is every parent’s nightmare. People don’t want to get close to nightmares.

    Then tie in these traumas into our dysfunctional socio-political economic system… a legal system slanted against human persons towards corporate persons or defendants against victims even when there is no ambiguity. Or where our most needy are treated like useless mouths to feed. Meanwhile, the looting and depravity of the ruling classes continues, state and gang violence rampant and the elites think nothing of 1.1M Covid dead and perching at the precipice of Armageddon. Most people are so propagandized they think you’re crazy to question nihilism.

    Don’t worry, be happy! Put on those VR goggles and everything is chill.

    1. Bart Hansen

      My sympathies to you and yours, and hope that in some small way it helps to write about it all to this group.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I greatly sympathize with the your woes, however, I would express a variant theme to your statement: “…most people simply aren’t interested in hearing our concerns more than in a few short conversations.” I do not disagree with that statement. I have found difficulty persuading people to express their concerns beyond mention in a few short conversations. I am not seeking company in misery. To assess the true state of my local world, I believe it is important to learn as much as I can about the experiences of those in my community. From this knowledge I expect to find common cause and gradually learn of the larger patterns of events.

  6. The Rev Kev

    People should be balanced and have an even strain in their lives but it is not possible to be happy-happy-joy-joy all the time without building up internal contradictions of some sort. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that ‘what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size’ so this denial of negative feelings is not a good thing. Somethings gotta give sooner or later. Frankly if I have an encounter with a person that is way too happy that kinda sets me on edge and makes me want to look closer at them – or the nearest exit. But if I encountered one of these “good vibes only” proponents as described here I would be immediately suspicious. These are the same sort of people who would be saying ‘Drop your masks and show us your smile!’ But after encountering one of these sort and as they walked away, I would be thinking in my mind ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’.

    1. britzklieg

      The talents of Bobby McFerrin and Robin Williams are legend.

      “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a huge misfire.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        McFerrin has long refused to perform the tune in concert, seeing it as a millstone around his career.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          In what regard is “Don’t Worry…” a milestone? I thought it was extremely caustic like a Brecht song. The refrain only served to emphasize the contrast with its verses. Do audiences hear the song the same way they ‘hear’ the lyrics of “Born in the USA”?

          1. Kouros

            Millstone not milestone. Albeit, around your neck, in the realm of physics, both stones will drown you. Figuratively speaking, one will drown you and one will lift you…

            1. Jeremy Grimm

              My typo does not explain what kind of millstone McFerrin is weighed down with nor does it answer the question I was asking and continue to ask.

              1. Michael Fiorillo

                Millstone in the sense of an ox walking circles to power a mill stone, rather than an artist exploring their craft and concerns.

                Dylan, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman going electric would be other examples, in the sense of audiences demanding that you stay where they want you to. Also, Antonio Carlos Jobim apparently hated having to perform The Girl From Ipanema, which US audiences (but not Brazilian) audiences always insisted on hearing. Readers could no doubt come up with dozens of other examples.

              2. truly

                I had the pleasure of listening to McFerrin whistle “don’t worry” one morning. I was walking up to the entrance of my workplace. Bobby was walking out of the building. He had just had his teeth cleaned at the dental clinic. It was a beautiful morning, he must have felt great walking out into the morning sun. Man, that guy can whistle. It was immediately apparent to me I was listening to a whistling genius. It took me some time and questioning of the dental staff to sleuth out who it was. I did not recognize him at the moment. But I will never forget the beauty of his talent. A moment of positivity I shall never forget.

        2. caucus99percenter

          I’d like to hear more about that.

          In my time, it was Ricky Nelson and his song “Garden Party” (about a concert appearance at the NYC venue Madison Square Garden) that made me aware of this “millstone” effect where fans ignore one’s personal and artistic further development and only want to hear oldies / past hits.

          Ricky Nelson’s lyrics included the lines, “But it’s all right now; I learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself” and “If memories are all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.”

  7. mistah charley, ph.d.

    a couple of “toxic positivity jokes” – the family therapist speaking to someone whose spouse chased them with a frying pan in their hand, helping them reframe this incident – “they want to get closer to you and have an impact on you” – I heard this in grad school

    and another joke, which I heard on the elementary school playground – a person undergoes an operation in which their leg is amputated – when they regain consciousness they are told “there’s good news and bad news” – the bad news is that the healthy leg was amputated by mistake – the good news is that the other leg is getting better and won’t need to be amputated after all

  8. lab_rat

    When a large group of people stay unhappy, they may start to question what makes them unhappy and are likely to find that their unhappiness have at least some common causes. And to deal with these common causes could involve radical social changes – something unwanted by the ones holding power. So the best strategy for the powerful is to shut off anyone complaining and pretend everything is fine.

    You can’t just be positive – there must be a cause to it. You can’t be positive when your life is a mess. “Be happy, then you can solve your problems” is the same as “be confident, then you will succeed” – confidence comes from success, not the other way round.

    1. Earthling

      There you go. They don’t want us to use any analytical thinking, to the point they have made it taboo or unfashionable in large swaths of the population. All they want from us is a stream of money and applause, no matter what they do to us.

      1. caucus99percenter

        Pattern recognition has been made taboo, lest the perceived pattern turn into a prejudice and conclusions be drawn from it that serve as seeds for some flavor of bigotry.

  9. David

    From the conversation, the book sounds a bit of a mess, running a whole lot of different things together. I doubt if it will be of much interest outside the US, where the general culture of manic positivity strikes almost every non-USian as bizarre and probably dangerous. But it does, perhaps inadvertently, raise a few genuine issues.

    One is social interactions. If I said “how are you today” and I am a doctor and you are a patient with a life-threatening disease, that’s an appeal for factual information. If you’re an acquaintance or a colleague, it’s just a conventional greeting (“I am being polite and courteous enough to enquire after your welfare”) and the response can range from “fine, thanks” to “not too bad at all” depending on the culture and the language, and means “thank you for your politeness and courtesy.” No information exchange is involved. If your spouse of your best friend ask the same question, of course, it might mean several other things. So no healthy culture should insist on people looking and sounding offensively happy all the time.

    The other is external stimuli. I meet people who are unhappy and stressed because of “what’s going on in the world.” I ask them why, and it appears that they haunt the news and social media sites, and wind up thoroughly depressed. “But why?” I say. I skim the news sites, and I avoid reading, for example, opinion pieces that annoy me unless I need to for professional reasons. “But I have to know what’s going on” is the reply. The reality is that the more toxicity you let into your life, the worse you will feel. And toxicity is not just a metaphor: you can become addicted to doom and gloom and to the pleasurable sensation of anger reading about the conduct of someone you dislike. There’s experimental evidence that the world we think we see around us is a highly artificial creation, in that the amount of information coming in to our senses is so great that we are forced to ration our attention, and we choose to notice things that accord with our desires and assumptions. Crudely, we experience what we expect to experience because we select it. You may have been at a party or a meeting with someone who later complains about negative stares, rude behaviour, being ignored or being somehow taken for granted, whilst you have noticed nothing of the kind, because you were enjoying the party, or finding the meeting valuable.

    Hidden away in this article is actually one useful gem, which has been repeated in wisdom literature over thousands of years. You are not your thoughts, your memories or your fears, but that which observes them. You may not be able to change events, but you can decide how you will react to them. Once you realise that you are not a robot, condemned to pre-programmed responses to outside events, then you gain a degree of freedom.

    1. OIFVet

      “I doubt if it will be of much interest outside the US, where the general culture of manic positivity strikes almost every non-USian as bizarre and probably dangerous.”

      Not exactly, though. That positive thinking only, be upbeat all the time BS has found its way into Europe by way of US-financed NGOs and corporate environment consultants. For example, we are relentlessly prodded at the beginning of online and in-person meetings to share something “positive and upbeat,” and then the meeting proceeds by focusing on anything other than the problems that we face. We are offered more upbeat “solutions” that won’t solve our problems. Anyone who attempts to talk about problems is either politely told to get back on positive message, or if he persists (like yours truly) he basically becomes someone who is challenging the organization’s values. So every week I sit through two hours of this and keep my mouth shut and my brain focused on problem-solving the real issues that I face at work, while maintaining enough attention to the discussion to be able to jump in if required. It’s cognitively draining and wastes time I can use far more productively. So no, it has found its way to Europe and there is no escaping it if you are in any way associated with a corporation or an NGO. The best one can do is to try to tune it out, but like I said that has costs too.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      As a person who haunts the news as filtered by NakedCapitalism, I am becoming depressed looking toward the future. Of course I was already becoming depressed after I started reading the climate science reports posted at various sites — like the IPCC. I grew depressed experiencing the Bush years, and the Obama years and learning of the impacts of the Clinton years. I grew depressed when my children asked me for advice in choosing a career — because I saw little they could attain in the greatly diminished u.s. economy, and as old tickets to a future that I knew from my youth like programming and engineering were withering. It did not help that the costs of college were fast exceeding my ability to pay them even though I held a relatively well-paying job. … I could go on and on.

      I may not be able to change events, but I can decide how to react to them. I decided to watch events carefully and try keep my cupboards and larder as full as I can. After a few power outages I started keeping bottles of potable water and made sure I had matches, candles, and storm lamps. I have made an effort to relocate to a place where food and water are available locally and where the people are friendly and help each other. I cannot avoid feeling depressed by events as they continue — so, I am most curious what Wisdom to draw from your useful gem of Wisdom? As my freedoms are increasingly reduced ‘in my face’ so to speak I wonder what degree of freedom there may be that I can gain.

  10. Dave in Austin

    Obsessive positivity and negativity are two sides of the same false coin. Reality may be a bitch but she’s our bitch. Churchill promised “Blood, sweat and tears”. His message was not “Feel good” or “Feel bad”, it was “Get ready”.

    I read “Upstater”, above, and was reminded of two-or-three other people I know who are facing realities I’m glad I don’t (yet) have to face. When I hear these stories I think: “If I can help on the margins I will.” and “There but for the grace of God go I”.

  11. Wukchumni

    Being a premature curmudgeon at large, practically the only place I overexert myself toxically in a positivity vein is the back of beyond typically topically on some high rise which is always a good listener.

    This comes out in dribs & drabs in the default world when discussing flora & fauna with fellow aficionados, here’s a conversation from last week:

    Her: I think I know where the biggest Fox Tail pine is

    Me: Where’s your biggun’ at? I have one in mind as well.

    Her: There’s a couple of supposedly the biggest Fox Tail pines up in Mineral King, but they’re both double trees, and homey don’t play that game, they have to be single trees.

    Me: Damned straight!

    Her: Mine is in the Golden Trout Wilderness way off trail in the nearest vicinity to Silver Lake, where’s yours?

    Me: You come down towards Little 5 Lakes off of Black Rock Pass and go off trail to Big 5 Lake #3 and about halfway down you’ll see a 10 foot wide Fox Tail that isn’t visible from the lakes or any other trails, it gobsmacked us when we saw it 20 years ago.

  12. Socrates Pythagoras

    Consider the consequences if this positivity-no-matter-what approach had always been “a thing.”Imagine the volumes of art , music, and literature that would have never been created. Not only does this movement rob us of beauty, but it also robs us of valuable insights from those who have struggled and are struggling with the pain and suffering that is life. It robs us of the laughter that often comes as a way to cope with a difficult situation. It makes us less resilient in the face of adversity.

    I choose to listen to Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Jung, Nietzsche, et al. over the soma peddlers, thank you very much.

    1. Socrates Pythagoras

      PS: It also robs us of the close relationships we build when support each other through tough times.

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      We can also go to the Good Book of The Sopranos for insightful commentary on this topic:

      The money quote is at 2:00…

      1. swangeese

        The money quote:
        “that’s the trouble with you americans…you expect nothing bad ever to happen….when the rest of the world only expect bad to happen….and they are not dissapointed.”

    3. anahuna

      I seem to remember a story about the Buddha in which a mother comes to him, sobbing because her baby son has just died. She wants him to bring her son to life again. The Buddha tells her he will comply if she can bring him a grain of mustard seed from a house that has never known sorrow.She sets out on the search…. And you can write the rest for yourself.

  13. Arizona Slim

    I’m far from being a new mom, but that “take almost no advice” thing really resonates with me.

    Off to a sunny day here in Tucson, I am. And impervious to advice I shall be!

  14. semper loquitur

    The cult of positivity has infected Tarot readers, who often ignore or downplay distinctly negative cards and always, yep, look for the bright side of a reading.

    I find kneejerk positivity absolutely revolting. It’s childish, manipulative, and shallow. Life is a bunch of roses: more thorns than flowers.

  15. William Branch

    Human beings are buffeted by an steady stream of bad news and bad feelings. We are often depressed, often with reason. We also often take to medicine or “mindfulness” to make our symptoms go away rather than dealing with causes. This “toxic positivity” is merely a side gambit of “mindfulness” … a kind of magical charm.

  16. polar donkey

    Both times my wife was pregnant, she said people when they found out she was pregnant would say “that’s great” then tell her pregnancy horror stories.

  17. Mildred Montana

    In a culture of “good vibes”, don’t try making light of death or dying like the famous cynic Ambrose Bierce dared to do a century ago. (Warning: The following two definitions from his “Devil’s Dictionary” should not be read by those who feel that their outfit is incomplete without a pair of rose-colored glasses.)

    DEAD, adj.

    Done with the work of breathing; done
    With all the world; the mad race run
    Through to the end; the golden goal
    Attained and found to be a hole!

    EMBALM, v.i. To cheat vegetation by locking up the gases upon which it feeds. By embalming their dead and thereby deranging the natural balance between animal and vegetable life, the Egyptians made their once fertile and populous country barren and incapable of supporting more than a meagre crew. The modern metallic burial casket is a step in the same direction, and many a dead man who ought now to be ornamenting his neighbor’s lawn as a tree, or enriching his table as a bunch of radishes, is doomed to a long inutility. We shall get him after awhile if we are spared, but in the meantime the violet and rose are languishing for a nibble at his glutoeus maximus.

  18. Furzy Mouse

    I’m not sure toxic positivity us killing us….actually, the incessant, relentlessly chipper Happy Day ads in all the media and stores are probably making us immune to this preposterous and annoying babble: e.g., we mute the sound when the ads come on the tube, obliviously stroll by all the For Sale 50% Off signs….

  19. Mike

    Well I haven’t read her book but I would at least disagree at a high level. I am a doomsday preaching, prepping, paranoid dude who plans his life to have lots of “insurance.” That said I still prescribe on some level to the good vibes movement on the day-to-day because otherwise what would be the point?

    I do like her comment on the: “My advice for new moms is to take almost no advice. There are so many people in your ear, on your screen constantly. Take almost none of it.” Better to find things out for yourself to some degree or at least reconcile what you have learned to this point. Many of us are incessant readers that fall into a trap of more information is better, I think in times past I tore through self help content but didn’t come out the other side necessarily better because I didn’t spend enough time reflecting on whether the material was worthwhile for me or not.

  20. Jeremy Grimm

    After she slammed down the lid, only Hope remained in Pandora’s jar of evils. I view positivity as a form of generalized hope. I believe one lesson to take from the story of Pandora’s jar is that Hope held too long is a curse that can hold one back from looking for other remedies while they remain possible. However, the contrary to positivity — unalloyed negativity — stops one from looking for other remedies.

  21. hk

    It’s one thing to insist on positivity, or, at least non-negativity, and another to forbid mention of it. We learn through bad things–when things go wrong, we know what not to fo, how to avoid them, and do on, and in so doing how stuff work (and don’t). But learning successfully does require a bit of positivity–that there’s always a next time, ie you need an assurance that ut’s worthwhile to learn from the present bad things. But this does mean that you have to recognize the bad things of today.

    I think the good kind of positive thinking is the belief that, even when bad things happen, that is not the end of the world so that you should try to learn from them. The popular kind of positive thinking nowadays seems exactly opposite: when bad things happen, that is the end of the world so we should pretend that bad things don’t happen.

  22. Kouros

    The hope that the animation movie “Inside Out” would put us on a slightly more normal path was short lived…..

  23. QuicksilverMessenger

    Way back in our college days, a good friend of mine, who possesses a pretty good turn of phrase, dubbed these people ‘smiling foot soldiers in the army of positivity’.

  24. Sausage Factory

    Positive thinking as new age speak is simply a denial of reality. It is why America finds itself in the world wide hole it has dug for itself and why the vast majority of their population have no idea what is actually happening beyond its own borders. Doubling down on stupidity and failing upwards are signs of the same desperation, both of which have transitioned the Atlantic and seem to operate amongst many of the European elites, especially so for the British. The fall will be swift and merciless.

  25. Michael.j

    Funny story.

    Having grown up with in a pretty brutal life, but also having come to terms with it, I am a bit cynical and circumspect.

    At one point in a conversation an acquaintance in a bit superior tone he observed that I was “glass half full” kind of person.

    Having a moment of clarity, I responded in my typical empirical manner, “actually I’m glass completely full kind of guy. It’s half full of air, and half full of fluid.”

    Later it occurred to me that his statement reflected a bit of narcissism, which was in fact indicative of his personality, in that he assumed he possessed, the glass, the glass contained something he desired, and that wasn’t toxic.

  26. semper loquitur

    Let me share a short anecdote about how modern life blows one’s “positivity” away in a matter of a scant few minutes or less. I’m trying to get onto a car rental that my partner made, as a second driver. I signed up for an account and proceeded to the verification page.

    That page sent me to yet another company’s site. This site informed me I would need my license number, a selfie, and my motherfu(king biometric data!!!!! I immediately backed out of the site.

    Back to the original site now. I need to call someone. Under Contact Us, I find no phone number but I do find an Email option. I shoot off an email and I’m informed that I’ll be contacted within 24 hours.

    So I download the app and sign in. They offer a “Help Chat” function. I open it and I’m “greeted” by an….AI. The AI offers me a bunch of pre-digested options that don’t have anything to do with not giving over biometric data so it can be sold or hacked and then sold.

    At this point, I’m starting to curse and yell so my partner takes over. She finds the AI and figures out how to get to talk to a representative. That only entails waiting for two to five hours.

    I do find a Customer Service number on the Internet, which I call. A chirpy and overly-enthusiastic (smiling) voice tells me that this line is only for emergencies. For non-emergencies, try the…..Help Chat.

    At this point my partner is now telling me to calm down. It seriously feels as if the walls are closing in when I try to use these services. You can see how they have shaped your experience to make it as profitable and efficient for themselves at the expense of any notion of service. I hate this fu(king timeline!!!

  27. Cat Burglar

    Back in the 60s my Dad used to drive to work with a coworker, a guy from the advertising department. One day, as he told it, on the way into Oakland, they passed the PG&E substation near Lake Temescal that had a big billboard over it, reading, SHASTA COLA — NOW IN NON-RETURNABLE BOTTLES! I can’t forget their conversation…

    “For cryin’ out loud! All those bottles! What are we going to do with all of them? I’ll have to pay for another trash can to haul them all away. What are these guys thinking?”

    “No — that’s great! You’ve got to sell the sizzle, instead of the steak!”

    “Are you kidding me? How is more trash a good thing?”

    “Bill, your your problem is that you need to think positive!”

    He would take a sip of his drink and gesture toward me with his cigarette, saying, “Always think positive, son, and you will always f(amily blog) up.” Then he’d take a drag on his cigarette.

  28. Jean

    Where once our world was run by ex-military men, “The Greatest Generation”, for better or worse, but at least things worked.

    Now it’s now being handed to dumb little girls with their latest books.

  29. John C

    For a good education in curmudgeon, Grumpy Old Men is required reading (and the series on BBC was just as good)! Oldie, I did both in the nineties if I remember correctly, but a seriously funny goldie.

    PS My standard answer is “Fair to middling to crap”. Works every time.

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