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Most likely, you have more than a few followers or friends on social media who have seemingly made it their mission to share their message of positivity across social media on a daily basis. They are the ones who are constantly posting motivational quotes, sharing uplifting photos (beautiful sunrises are a thing on Instagram), and using hashtags like #goodvibes on everything they post. There’s just one problem with all this positivity – those motivational quotes can end up seeming like mindless platitudes for someone experiencing real pain or loss in their lives, all those uplifting photos can start to make you feel ashamed and guilty for even thinking negative thoughts, and all those hashtags help to accelerate the viral spread of empty, meaningless content in your news feeds. In fact, researchers and psychologists even have a name for this phenomenon: toxic positivity.
The toxic positivity problem
Wait, wait, hold on, you’re probably saying. What could possibly be wrong with people sharing upbeat, positive messages all the time? Better that than a constant stream of gloom-and-doom, right? Especially during a global pandemic, when we’re all locked down and dealing with a lot of potentially serious problems, ranging from joblessness to the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. But here’s the thing – posting a great motivational quote in response to someone losing a job is not going to pay the bills and sharing positive images of a sunrise is not going to bring back someone who has passed away.
Even worse, all this toxic positivity is really starting to invalidate certain feelings and emotions and make us feel guilty for having natural, human reactions to negative events in our lives. In the past, we might have been able to confide in our close friends and found some form of emotional closure for our problems – now, however, our friends don’t want to hear about these problems. And, if they do, they only want to give a lot of empty platitudes like “look on the bright side, things can only get better, right?”
Curating our best lives on social media
So how did we get here? One factor, of course, has been the overwhelming trend on social media to “air brush” our lives in order to make them seem as glamorous and fabulous as possible. For better or worse, we aren’t going to post a #foodie photo of warmed-up leftovers on social media. But we will post an epic photo of a meal delivered from a trendy new take-out place, or better yet, an epic photo at a trendy new restaurant. And we won’t post comments about gaining weight or dealing with feelings of body shame. But we will post photos of our latest workout clothes or a brief video clip of us working out at the gym. The net result of all this is that everyone seems to be leading perfect lives – we all seem to be incredibly happy and motivated to lead our best lives. Except that, well, we’re not…
The deep-seated need for our content to go viral
And the second factor here has been the need for our social media content to go viral in order for it to be judged a success. That is what has led, in many ways, to the proliferation of motivational quotes, photos and updates. That is why photos of moms-to-be basking in the glow of pregnancy are so popular online, or why photos of mountains, skies and cute animals are so popular. It’s much easier to get a “like” for a cute, adorable cat photo than it is for a photo of more mundane aspects of our lives.
And perhaps the third factor here is the need to show “engagement” online. In addition to “liking” a post, perhaps the best form of engagement is commenting. And what, exactly, can you comment on a social media post, knowing that it might be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of other people. In response to a post about the loss of a loved one, are you really going to share intimate details from your own life? Or are you just going to opt for the easy platitude to smooth things over. “It always gets better.” Yeah, right.
Towards a more realistic view of our lives on social media
Whatever you do, please don’t misinterpret this as a call for more negativity on the web. We already have enough of this, in the form of hate speech, trolling and cyberbullying. But we do need to recognize that social media – with all of its happy images and motivational quotes – is no longer portraying our lives accurately. The AI bots used to decipher our social media posts are probably amazed and agog at the fact at just how happy we humans are. But all that happiness and positivity can rapidly turn toxic, and that’s the big takeaway lesson here. If we are not leading picture-perfect lives, we shouldn’t be shamed and made to feel guilty about it.