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Two glasses of water showcasing the concept of toxic positivity.

Beating Toxic Positivity

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How To Get Your Brain On A More Positive Track (Without Toxic Positivity)

There have been many studies done regards optimism and health, and they generally come to the same conclusion: optimism is simply good for the health.

Here’s an example we’ve mentioned before, but it’s a good introduction to today’s main feature. It’s a longitudinal study, and it followed 121,700 women (what a sample size!) for eight years. It controlled for all kinds of other lifestyle factors (especially smoking, drinking, diet, and exercise habits, as well as pre-existing medical conditions), so this wasn’t a case of “people who are healthy are more optimistic as results. And, in the researchers’ own words…

❝We found strong and statistically significant associations of increasing levels of optimism with decreasing risks of mortality, including mortality due each major cause of death, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection. Importantly, findings were maintained after close control for potential confounding factors, including sociodemographic characteristics and depression❞

Read: Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study

And yet, toxic positivity can cause as many problems as it tries to fix.

What is toxic positivity?

  • Toxic positivity is the well-meaning friend who says “I’m sure it’ll be ok” when you know full well it definitely will not.
  • Toxic positivity is the allegorical frog-in-a-pan saying that the temperature rises due to climate change are gradual, so they’re nothing to worry about
  • Toxic positivity is thinking that “good vibes” will outperform chemotherapy

Sometimes, a dose of realism is needed. So, can we do that and maintain a positive attitude?

The answer is: somewhat, yes! But first, a quick check-in:

❝I’m not a pessimist; I’m a realist!❞

~ every pessimist ever

To believe self-reports, the world is divided between optimists and realists. But how does your outlook measure up, really?

While like most free online tests, this is offered “as-is” with the usual caveats about not being a clinical diagnostic tool, this one actually has a fair amount of scientific weight behind it:

❝Empirical testing has indicated the validity of the Optimism Pessimism Instrument as published in the scientific journal Current Psychology: Research and Reviews.

The IDRlabs Optimism/Pessimism Test (IDR-OPT) was developed by IDRlabs. The IDR-OPT is based on the Optimism/Pessimism Instrument (OPI) developed by Dr. William Dember, Dr. Stephanie Martin, Dr. Mary Hummer, Dr. Steven Howe, and Dr. Richard Melton, at the University of Cincinnati.❞

Take This Short (1–2 mins) Test

How did you score? And what could you do to improve on that score?

First, it’s said that with a big enough “why”, one can overcome any “how”. So…

An attitude of gratitude

We know, we know, it’s very Oprah Winfrey. But also, it works. Take the time, ideally daily, to quickly list 3–5 things for which you feel grateful. Great or small, it can be anything from your spouse to your cup of coffee, provided you feel fortunate to have it.

How this works: our brains easily get stuck in loops, so it can help to nudge them into a more positive loop.

What about when we are treated unfairly? Are we supposed to be grateful?

Sometimes, our less positive emotions are necessary, to protect us and/or those around us, and to provide a motivational force. We can still maintain a positive attitude by noting the bad thing and some good, but watch out! Notice the difference:

  • “How dare they take our healthcare away, but at least I’m not sick right now” (lasting impression: no action required)
  • “At least I’m not sick right now, but how dare they take our healthcare away!” (lasting impression: action required)

It’s a well-known idea in neurolinguistic programming, that “but” negates whatever goes before it (think of “I’m sorry but”, or “I’m not racist but”, etc), so use it consciously and wisely, or else simply use “and” instead.

Cognitive reframing: problem, or opportunity?

Most problems can be opportunities, even if the problems themselves genuinely suck and are not intrinsically positive. A way of leveraging this can be replacing “I have to…” with “I get to…”.

This not only can reframe problems as opportunities, but also calls back to the gratitude idea.

  • Instead of “I have to get my mammogram / prostate exam” (not generally considered fun activities), “I get to have the peace of mind of being free from cancer / I get to have the forewarning that will keep me safe”.
  • Instead of “I have to go to work”, “I get to go to work” (many wish they were in your shoes!)
  • Instead of “I have to rest”, “I get to rest”

When things are truly not great

Whether due to internal or external factors, whether you can control something or not, sometimes things are truly not great. The trick here is that in most contexts, one can replace negative talk, with verbally positive talk, no matter how dripping with scathing irony. You’ll still get to express the idea you wanted, but your brain will feel more positive and you’ll be in a positive loop rather than a negative one.

This, by the way, is the inverse of talking to a dog with a tone of voice that is completely the opposite of the meaning of the words. Whereas the dog will interpret the tone only, your brain will interpret the words only.

  • You just spilled your drink over yourself at a social function? “Aren’t I the very model of grace and charm?”
  • You made a costly mistake in your business dealings? “I am such a genius”
  • You just got a diagnosis of a terrible disease? “Well, this is fabulous”

None of these things involve burying your head in the sand, in the manner of toxic positivity. You’ll still learn from your business mistake and correct it as best you can, or take appropriate action regards the disease, for example.

You’ll just feel better while you do it, and not get caught into a negative spiral that ruins your day, or even your next few months.

Sympathetic/Somatic Therapy:

Lastly, an easy one, leveraging the body’s tendency to get in sync with things around us:

For when you do just need a mood change, have an uplifting playlist available at the touch of a button. It’s hard to be consumed with counterproductive feelings to the tune of “Walking on Sunshine”!

Bonus tip: consider having the playlist start with something that is lyrically negative while musically upbeat. That way, your brain won’t resist it as antithetical to your mood, and by the second track, you’ll already be on your way to a better mood.

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