When we feel depressed, anxious, angry, or sad, a common coping mechanism is to bury those feelings and emotions and try to move on. It’s also common to hear that it isn’t constructive to ruminate on the things that keep us down, and that a shift in mindset or perspective can lift us out of our fatalistic slumber.
The often-uttered slogans, ‘happiness is a mindset,’ or ‘good vibes only,’ can sometimes hide the darker aspects of the human experience and is often referred to as toxic positivity.
“Generally denying or suppressing emotion is understood to be a poor emotional regulation strategy. It can work in some instances, but over the long term, people may not confront or understand how they are feeling,” says Brock Bastian, a psychologist from the University of Melbourne, who has studied how societal pressure to be happy leads to poor wellbeing. “This leaves those responses unaddressed or unprocessed and this continues to impact on their wellbeing.”
Is it Good to Always Stay Positive?
It’s true to an extent, that learning to see the positive side of negative experiences can help us build resilience, to grow into wiser, more well-rounded people. But the cost of ignoring why we might feel down may end up causing lasting psychological damage. We can begin to shift blame onto ourselves for not feeling happy, rather than thinking about the external and internal conditions that led to us feeling down at a particular time.
Bastian and his co-authors found people experiencing negative emotions feel socially disconnected if they think others around them not only want them to be happy but expect them to feel happy, too. They feel that their emotions are not normal or socially acceptable.
This type of dynamic can happen often online. Naturally, we want to know what our friends are up to, and what’s happening in the world around us. There is, though, a tendency for people to highlight only what’s positive about their life, be it a holiday, anniversary, or birth. We then shape an image of ourselves that ignores the mundane, or depressing, which sends an unrealistic message to our peers of what our lives are like.
Dealing With Negative Emotions
If we tell our friends or family to ‘get over it,’ it can diminish their experience. By telling that person to look at their lives from a different perspective, we neglect a basic human need to feel heard.
“Sharing our negative experiences with others is very important – we all have them and when we feel we just need to snap out of it, or that others are not comfortable with engaging with this side of ourselves, we tend to lack authenticity in our interactions with others,” says Bastian.
Are Feelings of Anxiety and Depression Normal?
If we are not willing to accept negative emotions as part of life, Bastian explains, we may see negative emotions or feelings as a sign that there is something wrong with us. But it is normal to feel depressed and anxious sometimes, and we experience these emotions for a reason. Anxiousness and sadness can give us information about the state of our bodies in relation to a situation we are in, and we should listen to these emotions for our wellbeing.
When the expectation is that it is not normal to feel these emotions, Bastian believes we can pathologize our negative emotions, leading us to think we may have clinical, diagnosable forms of depression or anxiety. It is important, however, not to trivialize the experience of these emotions. When these emotions stick around for more than a few days (or weeks) and when they begin to impact our ability to live effectively and to carry out what we need to do, then seeking help should be advised.
It’s possible to still be optimistic about the world, to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it feels like things are closing in around us. Bastian thinks happiness is more strongly influenced by how comfortable we are with our negative emotions, rather than how much we enjoy experiencing positive emotions.