Opinion: Looking on the bright side could blind you
Excessive positivity can do more harm than good
A Boston University study published this past February found that depression and anxiety amongst U.S. college students has reached an all-time high. These results are not particularly shocking considering the pandemic and the general unrest in this country combined with the usual financial, emotional and mental toll that college enrollment takes on the average student.
To cope with this distress, some students attempt to reframe their unsavory situations and try to find positives within them. We may placate our anxieties by reminding ourselves of the privilege it is to go to college, especially a private institution like American University. We drown our upsets with reminders that someone out there inevitably has it worse, or that “everything happens for a reason.” Social media and interactions with other students reinforce the idea that positive thinking is the most superior method for dealing with our stressors.
In conversations with peers, I noticed that when we discuss mental health, we tend to veer towards extremes. Either we find solace in the fact that everything is horrible all the time or we denounce any negative thought in favor of the Band-Aid “good vibes only” mindset. The latter is typically referred to as “toxic positivity” in the mental health community. I became compelled to further research this term after not only observing others, but noticing my own disposition. After a series of unfortunate events took a toll on my mental health, however, I noticed that no amount of material distractions and deflections could truly bring me peace.
Like most things in life, when dealing with our emotions, balance is important. Rather than suppressing them to conform to a world where happiness eclipses the myriad of other feelings that come with the human experience, research encourages individuals to allow ourselves to feel both positive and negative emotions. It is fully possible to collect ourselves to carry out our daily responsibilities without gaslighting ourselves into keeping our spirits high. This is a life skill that can prove culturally incongruent, as our society treats negativity as inherently taboo by shaming sadness.
College students in particular could benefit from improving our approach to comfort. An effective support system empathizes with a struggling individual, and encourages them to take all of the time they need to recuperate from emotional distress. These actions are more impactful than any attempt to offer a new perspective on a situation.
For the politically involved AU student body, being aware of our toxic positivity tendencies can also prove helpful in the way we approach social issues. When horrible events occur that are major stressors for students, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals, it is most important to promote self awareness and open dialogue. I have observed AU students, who lack the bandwidth to empathize, minimizing the feelings of affected parties over events they deem insignificant or inconsequential. It has even occurred in AUx, a program that promotes itself as a space for self reflection and openness. It is important that we learn to approach sensitive topics with emotional nuance, which is just as impactful as an intellectual conversation, and recognize that our respective life experiences inform our reactions differently. Compassion plays a vital role in a flourishing community. Professors and administrators have to make conscious efforts to combat placating and condescending attitudes and instead confront strong emotions.
Sometimes, things are just difficult, without a greater positive reason or learning experience. Things have gone wrong and things will continue to go wrong. As students, we can learn to stop encouraging each other to participate in the excess of positivity. Here at AU, where so many students aspire to make the world a better place, we must learn that this cannot occur by forcibly suppressing negativity, but by accepting it as a part of the human condition and addressing the root cause.
Diana Gertsenshteyn is a rising sophomore in the School of International Service and a columnist for The Eagle.