Complaining is out, gratitude is in. But what is gratitude? According to Psychology Today, it is the practice of "making conscious efforts to count one's blessings. Studies show that people can deliberately cultivate gratitude—and there are important social and personal benefits to doing so...The emotion generates a climate of positivity that both reaches inward and extends outward." Since it's possible to feel grateful for almost anything like loved ones, colleagues, and animals, there's little wonder why being grateful has become a popular practice. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the true meaning of gratitude, and they misrepresent it.
Misrepresentation of this practice has given rise to the phenomenon called toxic positivity. Medical News Today defines toxic positivity as "an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic." This philosophy would still be tolerable if very few people knew about it and practiced it. Unfortunately, owing to the popularity of phrases like "good vibes only," toxic positivity has become mainstream. The result is that many people think gratitude is about always looking for the positive in any situation. Therefore, instead of practicing gratitude, many people are actually practicing toxic positivity.
This is a problem because toxic positivity is not good for your mental health, whereas gratitude is. That's why it's important to know the difference between gratitude and toxic positivity. I hope I don't sound all high and mighty, because I, too, used to believe that gratitude and toxic positivity are cut from the same cloth.
Today, thanks to the help of my therapist, I now know the difference between the two and the mental health benefits of gratitude. When you're grateful for what you have, it's easier to appreciate life as well as cope with its negative aspects, like failure and depression. Via research, I realized that this confusion is pretty common, so I reached out to some mental health experts for clarification. Here's what they said.
Gratitude acknowledges your struggles...
"Having gratitude does not negate other feelings or exist in this toxic positivity space of 'Well at least you have this!' The reality is, two things can coexist at the same time. For example, we can feel both completely shattered by the loss of a relationship or friendship, while also experiencing gratitude for the experience. Think of it like this: toxic positivity says things like, 'choose happiness!' and 'positive vibes only.' Statements like these are invalidating.
"In contrast, being grateful allows for the adverse experience while also helping us cope with it. Remember, being grateful does not mean the absence of the tough feelings, it welcomes them AND creates space for growth and thankfulness alongside the difficulties you are experiencing."
– Elyce Mandich, LCSW, therapist and mental health influencer
...while toxic positivity invalidates them
"Toxic positivity is the very misinformed movement and culture (promoted by many uninformed 'self-help' gurus) that is based on the fundamental belief that a 'positive' attitude and mindset alone is the universal cure-all for pain and suffering. But it does not account for systemic oppression, privilege, and social conditioning that many of us are required to face daily—the external negative factors that we have very little or no control over whatsoever. And it can frequently invalidate mental illness, trauma, and grief. For example, take a look at this common advice. 'Everything happens for a reason! This will just make you stronger.' It translates to, 'You shouldn't feel ______. You'll be fine.'"
"Gratitude is a mindfulness practice that encourages us to take inventory and show appreciation for the good things we have in our lives without invalidating hardship. It allows for 'both/and' thinking, that is, we can experience pain and suffering AND have things in our lives that we are grateful for. Consider that someone says, 'I know you're hurting. You know we are all here for you.' This translates to, 'Your feelings are valid. You have friends/loved ones that care.'"
– Leah Aguirre, LCSW, Psychotherapist
Sometimes, the intention is the only difference between the two.
"Gratitude and toxic positivity can look similar but the difference is the intention. When you are grateful, you truly appreciate things and recognize the depth of your own emotions, and are choosing to believe that your cup is still half-full. When you are in a state of toxic positivity, you are likely trying to push down any negative feelings to feel and appear as though you are choosing to be positive. In reality, you are denying yourself the experience of feeling and processing these emotions and coming out the other side. Gratitude is all about accepting reality and making the best of it. Toxic positivity is living in a bubble, a bubble that is inevitably going to burst.
"Imagine that you have survived a car accident that totaled your car. Toxic positivity would say that it could be worse, you could have been injured or killed. It will ignore all fearful feelings because they are 'negative' and fixate on the fact that you survived. Gratitude would say that though it could be worse, you are happy it's not, that you're alive. At the same time, it will allow you to feel upset and scared that it happened. Gratitude allows you to express all your emotions and appreciate the silver linings instead of only looking for the good and ignoring all the bad."
– Silvi Saxena, MSW, writer at Choosing Therapy
Toxic positivity will keep you stuck, where gratitude never will.
"When you develop gratitude as a way of interpreting your life, you don't deny that there are problems and imperfections, and you allow yourself to experience the full range of human emotions. Gratitude is an outlook that says: I'm facing this big problem, and I feel really anxious (or angry or sad or whatever complex things you are experiencing). AND I have more to my life than this problem. I have good things in my life that make me feel calm (or happy or loved or loving, etc. And then you make a conscious, active choice to acknowledge what's wrong and then expand your attention and awareness to what is simultaneously right, what you are grateful for.
"It's very important to remember that cultivating gratitude does not mean that you have to continue to put up with a bad situation. What gratitude does is help you expand your awareness beyond a problem so you can feel centered and calm. From this position, you can then decide what you need to do to change your bad situation. It's easy for us to become stuck in problems, either because we're hyper-focusing on them and not seeing the rest of our lives, or we're using toxic positivity to avoid them or deny their existence. With its balanced perspective and expanded awareness, gratitude helps us get unstuck so we can be mentally healthy and thrive."
– Tanya J. Peterson, MS, Anxiety, Mindfulness and Wellbeing Specialist
How can you put an end to toxic positivity?
"Imagine a scenario in which you've lost a family member to some debilitating illness. A person bringing toxic positivity might say, 'At least they're no longer in pain.' This statement is meant to be a silver lining. However, it can serve to invalidate one's feelings of hurt, by urging someone to see the positives in a devastating loss.
"To stop it, practice mindfulness, be aware of your emotions and what you need. Minimizing more difficult emotions is a sign of toxic positivity. If you are feeling hurt, acknowledge that feeling. Remind yourself that every emotion is meant to be felt. If you are uncomfortable with something, take a moment to ground yourself. A way to do this is to think of your space. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? These are questions you can answer and allow yourself to be able to be centered and focused, lessening your desire to create false positivity to address undesirable feelings."
– Sherese Ezelle, Licensed Mental Health Therapist at One Medical