Positivity is not simply snuffing out negativity

In the song “Local Man Ruins Everything,” The Wonder Years offer some wise words: “It’s not about forcing happiness, it’s about not letting sadness win.” At the risk of sounding entirely abysmal, I believe there is something worth critiquing about the pressures we feel to constantly be happy and maintain positivity.

Being happy or self-appreciative is not a bad thing in and of itself, but societal factors coerce this feeling in all facets of life. Sometimes feeling sad or frustrated is warranted and delegitimized by pressures to not feel that way. On the other hand, widespread expectations of positivity also diminishes the value it — it’s not positivity, it’s just “normal.”

Take for instance the expectation of positivity in the workplace — say a fast food job. One is expected to greet customers, take their orders and clean up after them with a smile, despite heavy workload for wages that are hardly livable.

It does not cost much to be friendly and is undoubtedly better for all parties than being impersonal, but the literal requirement to be positive not only undermines individuality and personal experiences, but also makes “positive” workplace banter remarkably superficial.

The point is, expectations of paramount positivity in the workplace diminish the individuality of workers, but also work to force negativity out — even the negativity that might encourage one to seek a more fulfilling or lucrative career or honestly critique where they are at.

Another type of positivity that might be unexpectedly detrimental is the movement behind body positivity. Of course, no person should ever have to feel shamed or abnormal in their body, but does that mean they have to be unequivocally happy with it? Far too many have their efforts of self-improvement dismissed because there is an amount of negative criticism that must go into one’s decision to improve. Why improve anything when you could simply be happy with where you are at?

In more extreme circumstances, body positivity is unquestionably toxic. Some online communities have supported and encouraged eating disorders under the same guise of body positivity, going as far as humanizing anorexia and bulimia by referring to them as “Ana” and “Mia” respectively.

Fitness on social media has increasingly grown more sexual in nature and celebratory of bodies as opposed to self-improvement — again, self-improvement needs to be preceded with a healthy amount of self-reflection and criticism, which is largely discouraged in today’s media climate.

Even more directly implicated than physical health is mental health. To the ever-increasing masses of depressed, anxious, or otherwise mentally affected individuals, the pressure to be happy is crushing. On social media, we are encouraged to promote the best sides of ourselves, filling gaps of inadequacies with skin-deep self-promotions. It’s no wonder there is a divide between how we feel on social media and how we feel in real life.

Perhaps depression and anxiety have become extremely common and widespread because we feel that we are falling short because we aren’t happy all the time. And then we feel melancholy about being sad or anxious about being anxious.

Ubiquitous happiness is simply not achievable, and instead of realistically managing our expectations, we tend to take messages to heart that claim happiness is a sort of enlightenment potentially accessible to everyone.

There is a fine line to walk, as positivity and negativity are opposite sides of the same spectrum and not mutually exclusive by any means. But oftentimes we act as if one cannot be happy and sad or positive and negative at the same time, leaving us to constantly strive to optimize all aspects of ourselves while simultaneously attempting to appreciate where we are. But are we ever truly content, or do we just convince ourselves that we are because we are told that we should be?