'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.
This article has been condensed and edited for print.
I read your book at the end of my pregnancy and it really resonated with me. I couldn't handle any so-called "good vibes" when the smallest tasks felt monumental — I struggled to even walk around my house. I needed your bad vibes. But I'm curious what motivated you to want to write a book with a collection of essays themed around "bad vibes?"
So I was writing a lot of stories, a lot of essays, and the more I looked at them as a whole, the clearer it was an essay collection not a memoir. And this was going to be almost the opposite of all of the self-help books that arrive on my doorstep — books that are designed to make the reader believe that there is some internal flaw with them, and that if only they do these five things, build this habit, or whatever, they'll feel better.
I wanted to write something that was realistic, that was relatable, and that was reflective of what it has meant to me to be a senior millennial coming of age in one of the tackiest pop culture moment. In a time when the pendulum swung from a culture that provided a path towards eating disorders for girls my age to body positivity, from beauty at whatever cost to aging gracefully or naturally, from being young and free to being someone's mom. I wanted to create something that didn't try to tie up the messy experience of life into neat life lessons.
I didn't sit down and think "How can I write a book that's a response to a popular Home Goods sign?" But every time I see a "good vibes only" sign or sticker, I know I'm not welcome there. I should see myself out.
But what if it's Target?
Oh, I will leave that aisle. Honestly, I will not shop the signs at Target. I will not shop the message tees at Target. No, no, no.
Yeah, I get it. I definitely got a sense that the book was expanding on your work on grief. And then also I thought it was a response to all the "love and light" messaging — I say that in quotes — that's pushed so much by self-help influencers on social media.
Yes, love and light positivity. There's nothing wrong with positivity. I actually think I'm generally a pretty positive person, pretty upbeat, unless I'm falling down this spiral staircase of my own depression, which happens regularly. But toxic positivity, it's so pervasive. It will find its way in, in all of these sorts of new and different ways — old and new. Someone might say "millions of people around the world died of this thing, but at least you didn't— right?" Honestly, I don't know a whole lot of people who are fine after the past couple years.
Why do you think that there has been so much focus on good vibes and this rise in toxic positivity in our culture lately when, like you mentioned, there are a lot of people who are struggling right now?
I mean, when one's problems feel so big that they're untenable — what could be an easier escape hatch than choosing to just feel good or choosing to narrow your focus down to the things that you can control, and hoping that the thing that you can control is yourself? If that's the only problem, well, that's a much easier problem to fix. And if the only thing you have to worry about is yourself, well, that's a lot easier than thinking about the fact that it feels like humanity is in its final season. I don't blame anybody. It always feels better to just be happy. People would prefer that.
I'm always perplexed by the people that preach that if you think positively, good things will happen to you, or you can "manifest" something. And it makes me laugh because an actual therapist will tell you that you are not your thoughts. And you kind of mention that in that one essay, how you're really just observing your thoughts like clouds. What do you make of this focus on manifesting? And if you think positively, good things will happen to you?
I think it's total bullshit. Thoughts don't become things. And I also know from experience that it's not even a fine line. Of course, there's a line between feeling your feelings, dwelling on your feelings, fixating on your feelings, navel gazing, getting stuck in them, actual depression. But actual depression is not a matter of you not thinking enough happy thoughts. Anxiety is just not, "let's think of some different thoughts." And the number of people practicing unlicensed therapy as so-called "life coaches" is extremely alarming. And I'm pretty sure in 20 or 30 years, we're going to look back at that and think, "what the fuck?"
I'm curious, what do you think is missing from the popular conversation around mental health in America and finding a balance between having a positive mindset, but also embracing the reality of things can be really sh**ty and crappy sometimes?
I think intersectionality is lacking. There's a book that I read that I thought was the most thoughtful little book that I guess would be categorized as self-help, but I'm not sure how she would categorize it. It's called "How to Keep House While Drowning." And it just acknowledges in so many ways the way that we're different, the way that it is hard to care for yourself if you have a disability, if you have a different mental health state than your neighbor or your sister, if your community is really strong, if you have a lot of support or you don't. And this, I think easy fixes work when you flatten down the human experience to you either do it or you don't. And it's just never that simple. And I remember when my husband died, I truly wondered why things were so hard for me.
I was like, 'It's been four months. Why am I so sad?" Because your husband just died, you clown. I'd ask 'What is wrong with you?' Of course what was wrong with me is I felt this undue kind of pressure and influence from our culture, which was like, "come on girl, you gotta get up, wash your face, get moving." And I listened. I laid in bed and I listened to a Tony Robbins book. Are you kidding me? What could that man possibly have to tell a widowed 31-year-old single mom who's on the cusp of moving in with her own mom, about anything? And I was like, I have to get my brain right. I have to fix my brain. I have to just think differently. And the stories and bad vibes only are not all that. They're really not all that traumatic.
I can totally relate. When I lost my dad a few years ago and I remember going through that with grief too, being like, 'Why don't I feel better yet?' And it's like, there is all this pressure on us to feel good. Even as a new mom right now, some days, I feel sad. I don't feel like myself. But it's hard to reckon with what I'm told is the "happiest time of my life." But like I went through a very long labor that ended in a c-section, and that was hard.
Your body was just literally sawed open and they had to take out your organs. All your hormones are racing and people are like, "Yeah. So you love it?"
I liked your essay about having kids on social media, and not posting their photos. Aside from privacy, I'm just curious, are there other reasons? Are there other reasons that you decide to mostly keep your kids off social media unless you have their permission?
I do not think anymore that my children can consent to that at all. If I have a hard time conceiving of what it means for something to go viral — and I do — I have a hard time imagining what it means that a million people saw a post. What does that mean? What is the permanence of that? I truly have a hard time fathoming that. There's no way for a five-year-old or a nine-year-old or even a 16-year-old to possibly understand what that means. And it's not just for their privacy, from the size of the audience that I have, which compared to a lot of people is very small, even modest at best. But it's for the fact that they deserve to make informed decisions about how their life is presented publicly.
Totally. My last question, kind of a selfish one, is: What advice would you give new moms right now?
My advice for new moms is to take almost no advice. There are so many people in your ear, on your screen constantly. Take almost none of it. Take almost none of it. Take what you like and leave for rest. And the one thing that I wish I would've done is accept any and all help and take it f**king easy. I brought my two-day-old baby to a public radio studio to work on a podcast. You feel this compulsion to do these things and prove that you still have worth, because the world around you is challenging your worth. And telling you that the thing that you just did, have a baby, create a human life, is really only worth six weeks of half-pay and rest — if you have a full-time job.
Nora McInerny's new book, "Bad Vibes Only (And Other Things I Bring to the Table)," is out this week from Atria/One Signal Publishers.
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