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Why excessive positivity is bad for your health and mental well-being

There are real benefits to a positive mindset, but the idea that we should always look on the bright side has gone too far. Research into toxic positivity can help restore balance

By Conor Feehly

4 June 2024

New Scientist. Science news and long reads from expert journalists, covering developments in science, technology, health and the environment on the website and the magazine.

Having a positive mindset can result in unexpected consequences

DEEPOL by plainpicture/Anja Weber-Decker

Are you struggling with low self-esteem? If so, you may have been told to repeat phrases such as “I am a loveable person, I am a loveable person, I am a loveable person”. Positive chants like this, known as self-affirmations, are said to boost a person’s mood and feelings of worth. You might think that sounds too good to be true – and you would be right. When psychologists tested the effects of this very mantra, they found that it backfired. Those participants who started out with low self-esteem ended up feeling worse. The problem was that they simply didn’t believe what they were saying.

We know that a positive attitude can be good for us and that the right mindset can have a real impact on our health and happiness. But it turns out that we can have too much of a good thing. What those psychologists studying self-affirmations found was an example of “toxic positivity” – the idea that a forced optimistic interpretation of our experiences alongside the suppression of negative emotions can do real damage. The term has become something of a buzzword in both academia and pop culture. Yet despite this, messaging that “happiness is a choice” and “positivity is a mindset” abounds.

What’s required is a rebalance. It isn’t enough to say that excessive positivity can be toxic. We need to know when that is the case, why and for whom. Luckily, there is a growing body of research addressing these questions. Armed with this knowledge,…

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