The pursuit of happiness
When staying positive becomes bad for your health .
Brock Bastian interviewed by Eleanor Campbell
For many , staying positive and optimistic has been key to navigating the uncertainties and perils of the COVID-19 pandemic .
But those harbouring an obsession with staying upbeat , or viewing negative emotions as a failure or weakness , may have fallen into the trap of toxic positivity , according to mental health experts .
Dr Brock Bastian , a social psychologist , author and Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne , says that placing too much value on staying happy can hinder our response to bad emotions .
“ When we inevitably experience setbacks and hassles , or some depression or anxiety at various stages in our lives , it leads us to respond poorly to those experiences ,” he said .
In his latest research , Dr Bastian and his colleagues explored what vital element makes overvaluing happiness lead to lower wellbeing .
Dr Bastian joined Nursing Review to unpack the trap of toxic positivity and ways we can pursue happiness without taking it too far .
18 | nursingreview . com . au
NR : Can you tell us a little bit about what toxic positivity is and what makes it that step above just having a positive mindset ? BB : There ’ s certainly been a number of people talking about this idea of toxic positivity , and I guess it comes off the back of that sort of positivity movement that has been around for some years now . I think positivity and happiness are obviously important , but I suppose there ’ s been a recognition that it can become toxic sometimes , and the actual reason or the underlying mechanism about regarding how it happens was something that we wanted to focus on in our research .
There ’ s this idea that people might try and pursue happiness by valuing it very highly and wanting to maintain or assess how happy they are in each moment of their lives , and feeling that they need to maintain that happiness in each moment of their lives in order to feel successful , that they ’ re living in good life , that they have a high level of wellbeing and they ’ re as happy as they want to be .
The problem is that when we inevitably experience setbacks , hassles , some depression or anxiety in various stages of our lives , it leads us to respond poorly to those experiences . We see them as somehow getting in our way of our goal to be happy and therefore of our ability to be successful and to live life the way we want to live it . When we respond to those negative experiences in that kind of way , it actually makes them worse . It ’ s not a good way of responding to our negative experiences .
Given that we invariably are going to have some of those sorts of experiences in our lives , including our working lives , we want to be able to respond to them productively and well . When our pursuit of positivity leads us to respond to those experiences poorly , that ’ s when it becomes toxic in our view .
What are some of the most common forms of toxic positivity ? What should we be looking out for ? In relationships or with friendships , maybe at work with a boss or colleagues , it might just be that inability or lack of confidence to have a conversation about something that isn ’ t positive , or to allow someone to express some feelings , thoughts or an attitude that isn ’ t as positive or happy as you might want , and that sense of not being uncomfortable with that .
Sometimes we are in environments where we do feel some pressure on us to maintain a happy perspective , and to express only that side of our emotional experience . Certainly other research has shown that when people feel that social pressure it actually is a central contributor