Why Can’t You Just Be Happy?

In moments of stress, grief and despair, we often turn to close friends and family members for support and guidance. Their advice often parrots positive quote Instagram pages that advise you to “have a better attitude,” “focus on the positive” and “choose happiness.” While usually well-intentioned, these responses can garner feelings of further guilt and inadequacy in the recipient. People with low mood may wonder, “Why can’t I just choose happiness? Why can’t I look on the bright side?”

The phenomenon of devaluing negative emotions has been dubbed “toxic positivity.” Grief expert David Kessler defines it as, “positivity given in the wrong way, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, while a positive attitude can be beneficial in reducing stress and promoting resiliency, toxic positivity results from ignoring or suppressing negative emotions in every situation, instead of facing them in a healthy way. On a personal level, this can manifest as avoiding your difficult feelings, only acknowledging the positives in deeply distressing situations and feeling ashamed of yourself for having negative feelings. On an interpersonal level, toxic positivity may result in discomfort or invalidation when discussing difficult emotions. Examples of toxic positivity include phrases such as “everything happens for a reason,” “just look on the bright side” and “it could always be worse.”

Unfortunately, positivity is often ingrained in our culture and community. A study conducted by Parker and Gottman found that school-age children expressed the importance of hiding their feelings because expressing the “wrong” emotion could have negative consequences socially. At a young age, we are rarely encouraged to explore and confront negative emotions and understand what they mean to us. Conversations about death, loss and sadness are often shied away from, rather than addressed in a head-on way. As a result, many of us become uncomfortable with how to process our own emotions and how to help our loved ones through these periods. In a self-amplifying cycle, feeling like we shouldn’t feel bad can actually make us feel worse. In a study conducted by Bastian et al., participants who felt others expected them not to feel sad reported higher levels of negative emotion and lower levels of well-being. This suggests that the responses of others and societal expectations to be positive can amplify the distressing feelings. Toxic positivity can be likened to a Band-Aid on a deep wound that requires stitches: It is a temporary fix that can lead to greater distress and pain in the long run.

What is the alternative to toxic positivity both in our own responses to negative emotions and our responses to others? When trying to help others work through difficult emotions, asking them directly how you can best support them. Oftentimes, this can take the form of reflective listening rather than listening to provide a response or quick fix. When working through negative emotions yourself, treating emotions as “data.” This allows emotions to act as guides for what you may need, rather than obstacles to be ignored. Instead of judging, she advocates for self-compassion, forgiveness and acceptance of what you are feeling. Validate your own feelings, rather than comparing them with the feelings or situations of others.

In a study done by Shallcross et al., researchers found that acceptance and acknowledgment of negative emotions was correlated with decreased depressive symptoms and decreased negative affect (ratings of negative emotions) when compared with avoiding negative emotions. This demonstrates how acknowledging and addressing negative emotions may be protective in preventing long-term mood dysregulation.

The reality is that life can be difficult and messy. It is unlikely that anyone will feel good or bad all the time. It is in understanding and acknowledging the inevitable challenges and joys of existence that we can appreciate and validate emotions in all forms — the good, the bad and the ugly.


Related Content

Want to read more from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine? Subscribe to the Biomedical Odyssey blog and receive new posts directly in your inbox.