Social Media's Bombardment Of Positivity Is Bad For Us All

Social media is awash with positivity, but life throws us some negative vibes now and again, and that should be acknowledged, says SOPHIE WHITE, who thinks it’s time we drop the act.


I am quite contentedly walking down the street when it happens. It’s a perfect early summer day that seems to swell with possibility. I am lost in my thoughts, admiring the dappled light that an early morning sun scatters on the path before me. I might stop for a pastry and a coffee, I muse. This is the exact moment that a passing stranger feels an apparently irresistible urge to say: “Cheer up, luv. It may never happen.” In a split second, my carefree mood is replaced by a – frankly homicidal – urge to throttle this guy. When, in the history of the universe, has telling someone to cheer up resulted in someone actually cheering up? Never, that’s when. Never, ever, ever, ever. Remember, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, the equal and opposite reaction to being told to cheer up was me shouting “P*ss off” and stomping off to eat my cake and drink my coffee in a haze of rage.

Perhaps I am a particular breed of “hater”, but I find that I just can’t stomach the plethora of positive platitudes we’re bombarded with on social media. #PositiveEnergy #EmbracePositivity #MotivationMonday #LoveLife #Blessed. Ick – get your #positivevibes off me! Take #LoveLife, for example. It’s just so generic. Are we failing in our positive vibes when we don’t #LoveLife every second? #LoveLife sounds, to me, very much like people who say they “love dogs”. “Really?” I long to say, “You completely, indiscriminately love all dogs? Even the dogs you haven’t met yet? Thee ones who might defecate in an unattended shoe, for example? Or attack toddlers?” For me, the whole positivity racket (and it is a racket) is just too simplistic to take seriously. When I delved into the business of positive vibes, I began to very much regret my derisive stance on the topic, if only because I’m majorly missing out on the positivity buck. Searching the phrase “positivity book” on Google yields 22,100,000 results. Tony Robbins, one of the world’s biggest motivational speakers, charges between $1,000 and $5,000 for one of his seminars. Approximately 4 million people have attended. I am in the wrong game.

Blanket positivity is about the most shallow expression of concern. When the hard things are happening – illness, death, Netflix spoilers from some cretin who’s watched ahead – we need empathy, not positive platitudes.

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But the happyology movement is nothing new – one of the first and most recognisable titles in the positivity epidemic was published in 1952: Norman Vincent Peale’s e Power of Positive inking, and it stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for three-and-a-half years. However, the last couple of decades have wrought a lot of change in how we consume positivity. We no longer have to seek it out; it’s drip-fed to us via social media. This led me to wonder what’s become of negativity in this polished, positive, perfect world? I Google “negativity” and immediately an article by Michael Hyatt – author-mentor-guru; have you ever seen a more loathsome hyphenate? – pops up. “Are You a Negaholic? 5 Ways Pessimism is Ruining Your Life.” Ugh. How about reductive thinking is ruining my life? Clearly, I am a negaholic, as my next move is to throw “bullshit” onto the end of “Michael Hyatt” in my search bar and hit enter. Topping the results of this search was, to my embittered delight, Michael Hyatt’s #1772 entry in the “Encyclopedia of American Loons” by the American Loons blog. Probably not a peer-reviewed publication, but it cheered me up somewhat.

For reasonable people who can’t just adopt a generic positive attitude in the face of complex personal problems, negativity can start to feel like a personal failure. The deluge of inspirational quotes we are being force-fed daily on social media are the cupcakes of the emotional world. They look pretty, but the taste is saccharine and the icing to cake ratio is always off. And these syrupy bites of positivity can take on a faintly mocking tone when one is mired in genuine struggles, the kind we can’t “look on the bright side” our way out of. Blanket positivity is about the most shallow expression of concern. When the hard things are happening – illness, death, Net ix spoilers from some cretin who’s watched ahead – we need empathy, not positive platitudes. However, the positivity penny is a safe bet, and it has a strong hold on our culture. We reward people who have a positive outlook, we instill in our children to be upbeat and hide their negative emotions. When a friend is in crisis, positivity is there within easy reach.

A friend told me about her miscarriage and my knee-jerk response was to immediately reframe the devastating blow in a positive way. “At least you know you can get pregnant,” I offered like some brainwashed positivity cult member. She flinched and I saw immediately how callous and damaging my words were. I was using positivity to contain her emotions instead of giving her the space to express them. The collective horror of negativity is very much tied to our obsessive need to present ourselves as perfect in this post-selfie world. We are now a captivated audience to an estimated 136,000 photos posted to Facebook per minute; over on Instagram, that’s 80 million photos a day. And let’s be real here, these are not pics of the drainage drawer of the dryer over owing and wrecking the kitchen floor. It’s an irritating 24-hour reality show of positive people achieving their goals positively. Research by Hootsuite tells me that the top-performing Instagram posts are motivational. I post an inspirational quote and am intensely irked as the likes roll in.

The 2014 book, Rethinking Positive Thinking by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen was suitably scathing of the “cult of optimism”, drawing on extensive research to debunk the notion that positive thinking produces positive outcomes. “Positive thinking is pleasurable,” Oettingen writes. “But that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forced jumping for joy.” Through exhaustive research, Oettingen explored the supposed benefits of the positive thinking approach and found the philosophy lacking: “Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it,” she says. Debbie Downer that I am, I am thrilled with this news. I paste this quote onto the notes on my phone and resolve to respond to every hectoring “Love, Laugh, Live” Instagram post with these words. Namaste.

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