Tech & Science dictionary

toxic positivity

[ tok-sic poz-i-tiv-i-tee ]

What does toxic positivity mean?

Toxic positivity is a critical term for the practice of promoting or attempting to maintain a positive mindset or attitude regardless of what circumstances and emotions are being experienced.

The term is typically used to discuss the negative mental health effects of being pressured or expected to maintain positivity or happiness at all times, especially when negative emotions are natural and appropriate.

The term can be used in individual contexts (such as to refer to a person’s particular attitude or behavior) or as a way to refer to societal pressures (such as the overemphasis on positivity for which some spheres of social media are criticized).

Of course, moderate positivity is often considered healthy. According to many mental health professionals, behaviors and attitudes thought to constitute toxic positivity include the complete avoidance or suppression of negative emotions, the pressure to pursue happiness all the time, and the notion being occasionally unhappy is shameful or abnormal.

Such mindsets are thought to lead to lower levels of happiness, often due to magnifying poor mental health conditions. In other words, pressure to be positive and feel happy may make a person feel worse about their negative emotions than they normally would.

Example: I’m trying to avoid all of the toxic positivity on social media this week—sometimes it’s appropriate to be sad.

Related words

positive reinforcement, excited delirium, parasocial relationship, secondhand trauma

Where does toxic positivity come from?

woman holding post-it note with smiley face

The phrase toxic positivity uses the word positivity in the sense of an overall cheerful and hopeful outlook. The word toxic is used to mean “harmful” or “unhealthy.” The word is used in the same way in the term toxic masculinity.

The origin of the phrase toxic positivity is uncertain, with at least one use recorded before 2010. Use and awareness of the term in the context of psychology is thought to have increased around the early 2020s. Many writers and psychologists began using the term during the COVID-19 pandemic when discussing the negative mental health effects of being pressured or expected to maintain a positive attitude despite negative circumstances and emotions.

Examples of toxic positivity

Toxic positivity is horrible. It’s ok to be angry; it’s ok to cry. You don’t always have to be happy and things aren’t always “good”.
@getoffmyclovd, May 16, 2022
Because negative emotions are tools we use to get important needs met, we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgment. So, seemingly positive advice from friends can often feel like toxic positivity to the person receiving it.
Tchiki Davis, Psychology Today, January 2022

Who uses toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is typically used in the popular discussion of mental health, including by mental health professionals. It’s always used in a critical way.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of toxic positivity like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of toxic positivity that will help our users expand their word mastery.