• Toxic positivity encourages us to 'fake it till we make it' and ignore when times are tough

  • Coach Eleanor Marker breaks down why this sets us back and how to welcome more genuine happiness and fulfilment into your life

There is big money in happiness. From retreats where you can cuddle a goat to t-shirts telling you to look for rainbows in every shower, it is hard to get away from the impression that happiness should be our single life pursuit. Yet for many people it feels as unachievable as reaching that rainbow and we can be left feeling that we have somehow missed a boat that we never even saw arrive.

And then of course we have to work out exactly what happiness is. Should we be feeling moments of pure joy or a more diffuse sense of daily contentment? Surely this is wellbeing…and what is wellbeing anyway?

Yet worse is to come because then we are told that sometimes happiness is bad. Yes, sometimes it is toxic to be positive and to express happy emotions. How can that be when our granny has a mug saying ‘fake it till you make it’; try telling her she is being toxic.

So let’s look at what happiness actually is (and isn’t), why it matters that we feel it at all, when happiness is toxic and how to avoid this and some everyday tools to create our own happiness.

What is happiness? 

Happiness can be defined as a balance of physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. A general wellbeing that leads to unforced feelings of spontaneous contentment, satisfaction and joy.

Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology who has truly made happiness his business, believes that there is a clear formula for happiness. It is to balance five arenas of life: positive emotion, engagement with activities, relationships with others, meaningful action in the world, achievement of skills, summed up with the acronym PERMA. This simple yet effective model works to isolate the individual elements allowing everyone to create their own lasting happiness.

Why is it important? 

But why does happiness matter anyway? Sure, it is nice to feel it but no-one has died from lack of happiness…or have they? Unfortunately it seems that they have! Recent studies show clearly that happiness reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease, lowers your blood pressure, improves your sleep and yes even reduces mortality levels (Steptoe, 2019). So it seems that not only does it feel nice to be happy but it also keeps us healthy and alive longer.

So happiness sounds like something we all want. But if happiness is a positive emotion, then how can positivity be toxic?

When is positivity bad?

We’ve defined happiness as a balance of different focuses in life leading to unforced positive feelings on a day to day level. And the vital word in this sentence is unforced. The positive emotion of happiness has to be unforced because, when it becomes artificial, it drifts towards the dreaded toxic positivity that we are all warned about on a daily basis. We're back to granny’s ‘fake it till you make it’ mug.

Positivity becomes toxic when it is forced, both on yourself and on others, when it is merely a false reflection of the emotions of those around you and not true to what you are feeling and, most importantly, when it is denying the reality of the situation you are in and how you are naturally responding to it.  

How can we avoid these toxic traps? 

The safest way to avoid toxic positivity, or fake happiness, is to ask yourself: do I actually feel this or am I avoiding more difficult emotions? We can be nervous of sitting with challenging emotions but these are often vital signposts that we need to make a change, and are also the essential driver to this change. 

Much as Marx viewed religious belief as a deadening opium for the people, similarly false happiness can also be an opiate, deadening our motivators to make changes. Negative emotions tell us we need to make a change and are also powerful motivators to do so.

OK, so we know that we want to feel happiness and we know what it is and also what it isn’t. We also know that it isn’t enough to pretend we feel it when we don’t. But where does that leave us when we just do not feel happy and yet want to. We can’t fake it, so how then do we make it?

How can we create happiness? 

Here are some simple tools to help boost your daily happiness levels. Putting these into action on a daily basis has been proven to be the simplest and most effective way of crafting our own happiness and boosting those authentic positive emotions that make so much difference to us.

1. Affirm yourself

State three daily affirmations of things that went well and link these to your personal strengths. An example might look like: My meeting went well today because I am a diligent person who took the time to prepare the slides.

2. Practise gratitude and celebration

Take time every day to identify and sit with joyful moments and positive achievements. Once you have become adept at recognising these moments, learn to verbalise these when they come about both to yourself and others.

3. Find the beauty in everyday moments

Our life is made up of the glorious mundane so take that time to enjoy your daily coffee, the sound of the blackbird in the garden and the raindrops on your window.

4. Take time out in nature

Even if you can’t go for a walk outside, open the window and feel the sun on your face, smell the grass and listen to the breeze in the trees. It has been proven that even just a screensaver of a tree can lower your cardiovascular system!

5. See thoughts as a balancing act

For every negative one, try to create a positive view. Using phrases like: “On the plus side …” can help to rewire your brain to flip a negative response to one that seeks an answering positive. Eventually your brain will be wired in such a way that it always seeks out the positives in any situation, maximising your chances of genuinely seeing those happiness opportunities.

6. Take a look at the PERMA list

Can you add meaning into your life with some involvement in your local community? Are there any skills, hobbies or activities that you enjoy so much you lose track of time? What personal relationships can you prioritise that spread positive emotion into your daily life?

In these small ways we can all learn to craft our own happiness. And in doing so we can improve our health, protect ourselves from the dangers of toxic positivity and even live a little longer. Now that is something to be happy about.

Eleanor Marker is a verified Welldoing coach in Carmarthenshire and online

Further reading

Why chase happiness at the cost of authenticity?

The value of befriending your anger

Why can't I control my feelings?

Why vulnerability is worth the risk

How can I learn to self-regulate my emotions?