Toxic Positivity: A Cultural History From Voltaire To Pixar

The pressure to be constantly upbeat undermines mental health, and has been conveniently linked to social media. The past, however, reveals that toxic positivity is a far older and complex menace.

Toxic Positivity: A Cultural History From Voltaire To Pixar
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Positive thinking is a lucrative, multi-billion-dollar industry. The Secret — an Oprah-endorsed exemplar of the positive-thinking canon — has sold over 30 million copies to date. Pinterest searches for “positive quotes to live by” leapt 279 percent between 2019 and 2020. And we haven’t even discussed the innumerable motivational talks, positive-thinking manifestos, and evangelising influencers crowding bookstores, conference halls, and social media.

Storm clouds are brewing, however, if emerging awareness of toxic positivity is any indication.

Not all positivity is toxic, although, in excess, it’s likened to overdosing on ice-cream or force-feeding people around you to the point of illness. Toxic positivity is a maladaptive coping mechanism, which hinges on the denial of any emotions except joy.

Social media and its cultivation of manicured, idyllic appearances has proved an appealing scapegoat. In reality, toxic positivity predates the selfie age. The phenomenon’s past incarnations may even offer solutions to our modern-day ills.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds … Not.

The 17th-18th century European Enlightenment was an age of hyper-rational thought. German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz famously reasoned that the world as we know it is “the best of all possible worlds”, created as it was by an all-powerful, all-knowing God. Any evil and suffering had to be mere, aberrant absences of divinity that could be remedied by faith in His plan.

In scornful response, the French writer Voltaire published his 1759 satire Candide. It skewered Leibnizian optimism by sending its naive protagonists blundering through multiple armed conflicts, natural disasters (often based upon real events), and personal misfortunes. At the novella’s conclusion, our heroes are … disillusioned, to put it mildly.

Upon release, Candide was banned for its veiled critique of establishment tone-deafness towards human suffering. It nevertheless became Voltaire’s most enduring hit. Adapted by Leonard Bernstein into a 1956 operetta, the mordantly comical tale has seen countless revivals.

Candide exposed the flaws of a sanitised worldview that demanded tortured rationalisation. Reasoning away massacres, famine, and plague, just like modern minimisation of climate change and systemic inequality, is a privilege available only to a few.

On a social level, toxic positivity impedes empathy, contemplation, and problem-solving; to address any issue one must first acknowledge it exists, after all. It also imposes a sense of guilt and isolation upon those in greatest need. “If I don’t get better, it’s my fault… it’s a clever blame-the-victim sort of thing,” laments Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright‑sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Satire and absurdity à la Candide are the best solvents of this cruelly trancelike complacency. They flourished with especial vibrancy during the interwar years; artists in anti-war movements like Dada and Surrealism expressed painful social realities, interrogating the status quo. Their irreverence was the spoonful of sugar atop a bowl of moral outrage.

One imagines the field day Voltaire would have had with 2020. But in his absence, woke memes created by anxiety-ridden teenagers may have to suffice.

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In Defense of Youthful Cynicism

Speaking of youth, it’s vulnerable young people who are disproportionately targets of toxic positivity. Older generations tend to profile them as under-achieving and over-sensitive, advocating a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mindset. In doing so, elders often ignore economic or social factors largely beyond younger people’s control.

Ehrenreich, for example, blames the 2007-2008 financial crisis on a corporate culture rotten with blindly optimistic, growth-minded toxic positivity: “We’ve been weeding out anybody capable of rational thinking, of realism”. Aware that the workforce they’ve entered is a profoundly unbalanced and exploitative one, many millennials and Zoomers reject the sunny “rise and grind” work culture of decades past, incurring the disdain of their elders.

Although some find millennial snark and Zoomer fatalism confounding, journalism professor Shane Tilton enthuses that “Gen Z and millennials don’t have the ability to control the economy, but by goodness they can put text on a gif and say something about the situation.” 

These comedy styles also serve a more practical purpose. For those struggling with overwhelming anxiety, dark humour reduces its emotional threat and allows reappraisal from a less helpless perspective. It’s easy to dismiss youthful cynicism as laziness or self-pity, but it’s usually a first-step attempt at working through complex, developing relations with the wider world.

In light of this, the upcoming reboot of Daria, MTV’s iconic cartoon about a misanthropic suburban teen, is particularly well-timed. The show’s titular heroine is better remembered these days for her deadpan persona. But for all her devastating quips, Daria was thoughtful and principled in her rebellion. She resisted the superficial positivity that papered over deeper issues.

The episode Arts ‘N Crass sees Daria and her best friend, Jane, enter their portrait of a conventionally attractive teenage girl — revealed to be bulimic in an accompanying poem — to a statewide art contest. After the eating disorder commentary is erased by their teachers without consent, they opt to deface the artwork. This act of protest vandalism prompts a rare display of support from Daria’s lawyer mother, who defends the girls’ creative integrity to their principal.

“The critic is actively engaged in looking for new possibilities and potential, rather than merely accepting the world the way it is,” writes essayist Mark Greif. Uncritical, toxic positivity halts progress and personal growth. Instead of slapping a coat of bright paint over unpleasantness, people of all ages might be better served by taking Daria’s edgy, teenaged lead, and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

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The Kids Will Be All Right

It wasn’t always the case that society considered children too delicate to upset. The truth is that kids are far more observant and emotionally attuned than they’re given credit for, although only one family film in recent memory seems to acknowledge this.

Pixar’s Inside Out, which personified the human emotions, depicted sadness not as an obstacle to be overcome, but as an integral part of human experience. When 11-year-old protagonist Riley experiences stress and possible depression after moving interstate from her childhood home, her inner Joy’s attempts at sidelining Sadness and maintaining a (falsely) sunny disposition turn counterproductive.

It’s only when Joy accepts Sadness’s necessity in Riley’s life that they are able to restore her emotional equilibrium. “It’s the creation of Riley’s first mixed emotion [happy and sad] that pulls her out of her downward spiral. That’s a truly revolutionary notion for a movie aimed at (or at least determined not to scare off) small children,” wrote critic Mike D’Angelo.

While we mostly try to avoid them, negative emotions can put things into context, helping us weigh or appreciate them properly. For instance, the sadness of knowing that time with loved ones is limited can inspire us to spend moments with them meaningfully.

It’s crucial to embrace our emotions, even the distressing ones, authentically before we’re able to handle new experiences. There are simply no shortcuts, even for the most bouncily resilient of children. “If you’re falling into the myth that there’s a right way to feel in every situation, then you’re really limiting yourself,” warns clinical psychologist Jamie Long.

In short: It’s OK not to be OK. Really.

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