Positive Psychology vs. Toxic Positivity

The term Positive Psychology is often misunderstood, it’s not about being positive all the time. Being forced to always think positively is what we call Toxic Positivity.

Patrick Heller
3 min readMar 1


In my previous articles, I’ve been talking about psychological therapy. Therapy is usually focused on helping people overcome problems. On a positive note — pun intended — there’s this thing called Positive Psychology. You can see the term popping up in social media left and right, but it is often either misused or misinterpreted.

American psychologist Martin Seligman is the father of Positive Psychology. What he noticed was that psychology has always been about helping out and dealing with people who were somehow mentally deficient — there was something wrong with them. Seligman took into consideration that this is only a small percentage of the entire population and thought about all those other people that are mentally normal and healthy. He wondered what psychology could do for them.

This gave birth to Positive Psychology. The name itself is often misunderstood — it is not about being positive all the time and getting rid of gloomy feelings. We all have an inner mood baseline. We will be happier at times, and sadder at others, but in general, we return to a certain baseline level. The baseline level will differ from person to person. Some are more inclined to be gloomy while others always see the positive side of things.

The name Positive Psychology is derived from the idea that people with psychological disorders need help to get from a subzero state to their zero baseline. Positive Psychology focuses instead on helping people rise from their baseline upwards — into the positive.

Seligman had thus entered new markets, much bigger markets than those of people with disorders. That’s probably one of the main reasons for the rise in popularity of Positive Psychology over the last few decades.

Even though the results achieved with Positive Psychology are significant — meaning, they make a noticeable difference, albeit rather small — one should be careful out in the wild about adopting methods and ideas that from the surface seem to be related to Positive Psychology but are rather part of the “Toxic Positivity” scene.

It doesn’t make sense to always try and be positive. As grief experts tell us, it’s important for us to acknowledge loss or failure. It’s important not to force yourself away from the pain you actually feel deep inside. If you try, your true emotions will simmer unconsciously and after a while, you will feel exhausted.

The unattended pain of loss or failure might turn into long-lasting suffering. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Instead, acknowledging and exploring your pain will eventually lead you back to your baseline. You don’t need to do this all by yourself, you can always consult a qualified therapist to help you return to an acceptable baseline.

Forced positivity is not the solution to deal with loss or failure, but what does help in dealing with pain is realizing how resilient you are and being optimistic about recovery.

So, the next time your team fails to meet a deadline, or when your team has caused a major failure for the organization, don’t try to overcompensate by waving away the troubles and being overly positive about the situation. It’s okay to let the pain sink in. Talk about the failure within the team and let people share their emotions. Attend to the pain now to avoid suffering in the long run. Just as an individual will always return to a baseline, so will a team.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores: https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Psychology-Modern-Organizations-scientifically/dp/B08NP12D77/

Book cover