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‘Good vibes only’: Why toxic positivity is slowly killing us

‘Good vibes only’: Why toxic positivity is slowly killing us
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‘Good vibes only’: Why toxic positivity is slowly killing us

In the past decade, Americans have become peculiarly fixated on the idea of maintaining a constant positive mindset. The idea is most epitomized by the phrase “good vibes only,” which is now emblazoned on clothing, cutesy mass-market home decor, neon signs and on many an influencer’s social media posts in hashtag form.

Though well-intentioned, the message — and arguably, the positive psychology movement that underlies the sentiment — has veered into the realm of toxic positivity. The term toxic positivity refers to a mentality in which, no matter how awful a situation may be, one is still told to still find a silver lining. Laid off from your job during the pandemic? The toxically positive might reply, “at least you didn’t die of COVID.” Did your spouse leave you? Toxic positivity would respond, “well, look on the bright side, they could have cheated on you.”

These kinds of messages often lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or may be an avoidance mechanism. In other words, maintaining a “good vibes only” mindset is not particularly helpful nor psychologically healthy. Humans are meant to feel and embrace a full range of emotions — not to be happy robots all the time, especially when bad things happen. And yet, the phrase “good vibes only” is consistently splashed across walls, screens, and doormats, and has become a sort of millennial and Gen Z mantra.

Yet amid this cacophony of meaningless positivity, writer Nora McInerny is a loud dissenter. McInerny, known for her podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” is leading the movement to embrace the darker sides of life — the so-called “bad vibes,” things like death, depression, and the overall messiness that accompanies humanity. McInerny’s new book, a humorous collection of essays titled “Bad Vibes Only (And Other Things I Bring to the Table)” is full of these kinds of cringe-y moments — spanning from the author’s young adulthood in the aughts to her being a parent today. And (thankfully), unlike self-help books that line positive psychology shelves at the bookstore, these stories don’t typically end by looking on the bright side.

Salon interviewed McInerny to talk about America’s obsession with being positive, the state of mental health and parenting.

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