“Stay positive”: New Work & toxic positivity

October 20, 2021

New Work is innovative, dynamic and lively. Everything is newer, better, stronger, faster and simply super amazing. It’s about individuality, self-discovery and the departure from the tedious 9 to 5 battery-hen job. Work-life balance, playing foosball at the office, baskets full of fruit, after work drinks…it just keeps getting better. If you’re not striding into the future, you’re lacking the right mindset. All that counts is being positive – then everything else will fall into place, too. Positive thinking is an incredibly valuable character trait, and it’s one that can be acquired. Yet in the last few years, we’ve been rolled over by a wave of positivity, a wave which tells us to see only the positive in everything. There’s no room for negative thinking – in fact, it’s even frowned upon. This phenomenon, which has been dubbed “toxic positivity”, can be encountered at the workplace – and everywhere else, for that matter.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity can be defined as “compulsive optimism”, the desire to recognize the positive in everything everywhere – simply put, to be able to see the good in things. Nevertheless, this also means blocking out negative emotions, which is significantly unhealthy for many reasons, ergo: toxic. On one hand, negative feelings are a part of life. It’s not normal to be happy all the time and there are more than enough situations in life where the mantra #staypositive doesn’t really apply. We need sadness, anger and all the other “negative” feelings which toxic positivity suppresses in order to truly experience life. Our emotions enable us to engage in an important negotiation process with ourselves. They help us to evaluate what’s good for us and what isn’t. However, toxic positivity deprives us of a full array of feelings – and in some ways, it prevents us from realistically being able to think or feel positively. On the other hand, it’s highly problematic when our own toxic positivity becomes the yardstick by which we measure those around us. By doing so, we end up denying the legitimacy of other people’s feelings and force them into our own (toxic) thinking patterns. That’s not only uncool, it’s also extremely dangerous.

How should we deal with toxic positivity?

“Good vibes only”, “You attract what you think about” or “Don’t worry, be happy!” – if one or several of these kind of mottos is featured in your social media biography, chances are good that you’re a posterchild for toxic positivity. No, that’d be nonsense, since it greatly oversimplifies the issue. However, if you notice that you’re promoting or passing on toxic positivity, then it’s time to evaluate your own thinking patterns in order to question and change them. It’s really worth repeating here that positive thinking is an incredibly valuable character trait. Yet even positivity can become unhealthy when it is forced and when it surpresses other emotions. It’s also important for us to accept negative emotions, even if that’s sometimes very hard to do. It’s hard because, first of all, we’re socialized to view negativity as something bad, and secondly, the toxic positive phrases we tend to use, such as “look on the bright side” or “see it as an opportunity”, function rather as defensive mechanisms. The ability to be empathetic and truly listen to others would be much more useful – then we’d be much better at assessing what another person needs at a given time. They might need someone to comfort or listen to them, or someone who can offer support or perhaps motivation – the main thing is to be there for others, without toxicity.

New Work & toxic positivity

Neue Narrative’s Louka Goetzke explains that in relation to work, “the idealogy of positive thinking states that success solely depends on hard work”. The name of the game is those who think positive can’t fail, or be unsatisfied with what they are doing – because ultimately, everything boils down to attitude. Yet there is fertile ground for toxic positivity in the wonderful new working world, even within the principles of New Work. Checking your emails after working hours? Work-life blending! Working while on vacation? Workation! Working at night or on the weekends and working everywhere except from the office? Flexible working hours and remote work! Needless to say, there’s incredible potential in New Work structures which can give us the opportunity to organize our work routines more individually, flexibly and positively. However, we have to be careful in distinguishing theory from practice to ensure we’re not using positivity rhetoric to justify issues such as excessive workloads, improper conditions and employee dissatisfaction.