Scrolling through the influx of inspiring quotes and joyful images on your social feed can be a happy, and even relaxing experience. Social media is meant to help you connect with others and part from the stressors of the outside world — but these platforms are also designed to keep you scrolling, and over time, all of that positivity-driven content can leave you feeling the effects of what psychologists are now calling “toxic positivity.”
“Social media can make us feel like we have to be happy all the time,” Timothy Bono, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, tells Thrive Global. “But the happiest people understand that there is a natural ebb and flow to emotional states.”
While some experts define toxic positivity as the “tendency to react to others’ suffering and struggles with reductive statements of positivity,” Bono says the rise of social media has amplified its effects, making users feel bad when they can’t live up to the constant happiness they see on their feeds. “It’s now easier than ever to catch a glimpse into everyone else’s lives and see how our own lives measure up,” he explains. “Within moments of logging on, we have instant access to others’ accomplishments, vacations, job promotions, and home upgrades.”
Bono notes that there are actionable steps you can take to avoid letting toxic positivity make you feel bad, or stress you out. Here are some guidelines to help you get started.
Prioritize time awareness
It’s difficult to identify the moment where positivity turns toxic, and that’s why it’s important to first be aware of how much time you’re spending online. “One of the best ways we can avoid such toxic positivity is by monitoring our use of technology,” Bono notes. “Pay attention to how much time you are spending on it, and how you feel right after.” By simply acknowledging how long you spend looking at others’ lives, you can observe how much time on your device makes you feel best, and how much time feels stressful. And if you’ve seen one too many filtered images of joy for one day, pause. “You don’t have to give up social media altogether… But if you find that your use is leading you down a path toward social comparison and envy, you may want to modify how you are using it,” Bono notes.
Allow yourself to have negative feelings
When you share a negative emotion with someone else, the other person often feels the need to cheer you up, or convince you to think optimistically. Factor in the level of information we share on social media, and these well-intentioned responses can quickly become stressful, and according to Bono, toxic. “Negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, and disappointment are simply part of the human experience,” he explains. “Trying to undo or not feel those emotions when they come up will often backfire and make us feel them even more intensely.” Instead of resorting to your followers to cheer you up, Bono recommends giving yourself permission to feel your negative feelings, and accept that you might have bad days every now and then. “The way we respond to life’s setbacks will have important implications for our overall well-being,” he adds. “It’s OK to sometimes not be OK.”
Trade likes and follows for pen and paper
When the constant push for positivity online starts to feel overwhelming rather than calming, it might be time to log out, and put pen to paper. “Seeing things on paper can help you talk through something in your mind,” Bono says. “Doing so engages regions of the brain that help us take a more logical, rational perspective, and glean insight that we otherwise may have missed.” If you’re looking at everyone else’s highlight reels each time you look at your phone, you could be missing out on honing in on how you actually feel — and Bono says a simple writing exercise can help you part from the toxic positivity that has little to do with your real emotions. “Writing things down can help you diminish self-defeating voices,” he adds. “There is something powerful that happens when we translate ideas that have been swarming in our heads into language.”
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