Toxic positivity is the belief that we should try to put a positive spin on every experience in life, even if that experience has been difficult or traumatic. Unfortunately, in recent years, western society has become obsessed with only focusing on, and expressing positive emotions. All too often we hear phrases like “look on the bright side”, “get over it”, “man up”, “think happy thoughts” or “don’t be so negative”.
While it is definitely important to be able to recognize and to be grateful for good things, it’s also essential to be able to recognize when something has been hard and difficult in life. In fact, it’s healthy.
The fact is that life is not always a bed of roses. At some point, we’ll all most likely face challenges that will naturally elicit negative emotions; whether that’s dealing with a health diagnosis, divorce, struggling financially, or grieving a loss.
Society’s Preoccupation with Positive Thinking
As humans we’ve evolved as complex emotional beings. It’s part of our natural behavior to experience and express an array of emotions, not just one. Therefore, this preoccupation with “remaining positive at all times, in all situations” is in fact deeply unhealthy for all of society, but in particular, men.
In the last few decades the amount of media and books published on the importance of positive thinking has been somewhat overwhelming. And while there’s definitely research that identifies how a positive outlook on life can help to support our mental health, these findings are more aligned with “cultivating optimism” in general, but certainly not at the expense of acknowledging the sometimes difficult and challenging realities of life.
This hyper focus on positivity in society today has created a pressure to always appear “ok”, and in turn can result in people feeling as if they have to put on a front, even if they are struggling. This is not healthy for anyone, regardless of gender. There are many well documented forces that already serve to oppress men’s expression of emotion. For example:
- gender bias
- harmful narratives around patriarchy and toxic masculinity
Toxic positivity only adds fuel to the fire of men’s mental health crisis. As most of us are aware by now, men are suffering the consequences of an arguably “anti-masculine” society, which along with other factors, has resulted in men being at a much greater risk from suicide. In 2020, men were 3.88 x more likely to die from suicide than women, with white males accounting for 69.68% of all suicide related deaths in the USA.
Cathartic Expression of Emotion
The healthy expression of all emotions is necessary for our mental wellbeing, and suppressing emotions has been shown to negatively affect mental health in general. In fact, emotions need to be expressed in order to maintain our mental wellbeing and this is well documented by scientific studies on cathartic expression.
Definition of Cathartic:
“Providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions; causing catharsis.”– Oxford Languages, definition
If we look at other cultures around the world, we can actually learn a lot from how they openly express different emotions. In many African cultures, like the Nyakyusa people for example, the public expression of grief is socially acceptable. It’s not considered embarrassing or shameful for the bereaved to be seen in public, openly expressing their grief amongst fellow mourners.
In fact, this public display of mourning elicits support from surrounding community and family members, while acting as a kind of “purge” for the grieving party. There is not the same expectation to conceal negative emotions. However, in the West, the same outpouring of public grief would often be demeaned, looked down upon, or shunned as socially unacceptable.
These unspoken cultural display rules and toxic positivity in the west actually promote the suppression of negative emotions in both males and females, which is damaging for everyone. While evidence suggests that the expression of sadness and crying is more socially acceptable for females; the expression of other emotions such as anger and frustration, still is not. But at least there is some support for women expressing what are perceived to be negative emotions such as crying.
Unfortunately, men are not afforded the same luxury. In fact, it has been recognized within the research community that men crying in public is considered to be more shameful, compared to women, and is also somewhat ostracised by American culture.
Society Now Demonizes Most Male Emotions
Even worse, society now also demonizes men for expressing anger in most circumstances. This leaves men with far more limited options for expressing emotions. We only need to look at the tidal wave of condemnation and vilification that Will Smith’s public display of anger received recently at The Oscars’ (while we do not condone physical violence of any kind; this is a good example of society’s reaction to a man’s public display of anger).
Men receive conflicting messages from society. On one hand they’re told to “be strong”, but not too strong, as that’s toxic masculinity or aggressiveness. Then they’re told, “be more vulnerable, don’t be ashamed to cry, but don’t be weak”. Whereas women are mostly supported for being strong and vulnerable at the same time.
The truth is, men can be both too. And society should support them for being both, just as equally as women. It’s understandably very confusing for men trying to navigate their emotional journey through life with ever changing goal posts. And toxic positivity doesn’t help, as it literally only allows for one kind of emotion.
Interestingly, this hyper focus on being seen to be positive results in a collective suppression of all other emotions. And in turn, it has been hypothesized to be responsible for a collective increase in anger and frustration. Particularly, it has been noted that negative emotions are provoked within individuals in society far more than they are allowed to be expressed.
Furthermore, with men being identified as having more emotional experiences with anger, this creates a pressure cooker type scenario where there are limited “safe spaces” for a cathartic release for men, thus negatively affecting their overall mental health.
27 Emotions – Not Just One
Our culture today dictates that it’s socially unacceptable to express pretty much any emotion that is not positive in public. The fact is that as human beings we operate on a wide spectrum of emotions, and we do not live in a state of happy contentment at all times.
Psychologists used to believe that all emotions fell within the quite narrow realms of; happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust. However, more recent research by the UC of Berkley has actually found that we experience a much broader spectrum of 27 emotions.
This puts the wests’ obsession with positivity into perspective and highlights just how skewed it is.
The Human Spectrum of 27 Emotions
The 27 human emotions include: Admiration, Adoration, Aesthetic Appreciation, Amusement, Anxiety, Awe, Awkwardness, Boredom, Calmness, Confusion, Craving, Disgust, Empathetic Pain, Entrancement, Envy, Excitement, Fear, Horror, Interest, Joy, Nostalgia, Romance, Sadness, Satisfaction, Sexual Desire, Sympathy, Triumph.
Health professionals and authors need to take the lead in promoting the message that we all operate on this wide spectrum of emotions, thus normalizing and changing the narrative around toxic positivity.
Negative emotions do have a place, and furthermore, a purpose in life. They can help us to take action, change things, and signify the strength of our attachments to others. But being pressured to hide them doesn’t serve a purpose for anyone; not the least men – or society itself.