Updated: Feb 27, 2021
I like to think I’m a generally positive person: I take time each day to note what I’m grateful for, I laugh a lot (maybe too much), and I overall try to maintain an upbeat demeanor. When the pandemic hit, I wanted to make sure I maintained my positivity, so I took the free Yale University Science of Wellbeing course. I also started listening to podcasts like Ten Percent Happier and The Science of Happiness. Yet, as the year comes to a close and I reflect on 2020, I can’t help but think that, frankly, a lot about this year simply sucked.
Throughout the pandemic, there seemed to be a message of “good vibes only” created on social media and online, with many people touting the pandemic as ‘a blessing in disguise.’ Now, I will be the first to point out the benefits of gratitude and positivity- I know they work wonders for both emotional and physical health because they personally have for me. At the same time, I do yearn for my life to go back to “normal.” While I was able to discover silver linings throughout the year, the reality is that I didn’t want this pandemic in the first place, and I don’t want to feel guilty about feeling this way.
How many times have we heard the following phrases over the past few months?
It could be much worse.
Look on the bright side.
Count your blessings.
Just be happy.
Toxic positivity is the term for the notion that regardless of a person’s situation, they should only have a positive mindset all of the time. Although people often mean well when encouraging others and themselves to stay positive, toxic positivity can have detrimental effects for people who are going through difficult situations and experiencing pain. Toxic positivity creates the perception that negative feelings are inherently bad. Although no one wants to constantly be in a state of negativity, we are complex beings: sometimes we are happy humans and sometimes we are sad humans. Sometimes we are grateful humans and sometimes we are miserable humans — all of these feelings are natural, and to consider the not-so-happy emotions as innately undesirable or shameful is not healthy.
When we tell others and ourselves to only have positive feelings 100% of the time, we are just repressing these emotions and allowing them to bottle up instead. Last month, when my friend told me she was having a rough week and I told her “I’m sure next week will be better. Cheer up!” I didn’t actually help her at all. Not only did I pressure her to perk up instead of acknowledging her feelings in the moment, but I also signaled to her that she couldn’t talk about her real feelings with me. My remark definitely didn’t make her frustrations go away, but it did close off the conversation so she’d suppress instead of express. If I had said, “How can I best support you right now?” or even simply “Do you want to talk about it?” I could have been a better friend at that moment.
We often fail to realize that both having a positive outlook and having some less-than-pleasant emotions do not have to be mutually exclusive. A lot of people are grateful for the additional time at home because of COVID-19. For some, this time at home has meant creating more memories with loved ones. For others, this time has allowed them to pick up new hobbies like baking or painting. However, the appreciation for family time could be accompanied by the actuality of a parent having been unemployed since the pandemic began, and the leisure time could also serve as a reminder for just how long someone has been without a job. To tell someone to “just be thankful” in such situations is insensitive towards the very real financial and emotional challenges of their circumstances. Sure, what mother would not enjoy more time at home with her child? But this appreciation does not negate the fact that she’s tired and frustrated, too.
When I was in high school, my life goal was “to be happy.” Back then, happiness to me meant an absence of emotions like sorrow and frustration. Today, although I still want a happy life, happiness means something a bit different. Ironically, what helped my positivity the most throughout the past year was to recognize the very moments I didn’t feel like being positive at all. I’ve realized now that for me, positivity is best served with a healthy dose of realism too.
For 2021, my goal is to continue being grateful for my beautiful life while also being in tune with my emotions in the present moment. When I’m having a bad day, I want to accept those feelings and create a nonjudgmental space for myself to process them. Of course I don’t want to turn a bad day into thinking I have a bad life, but I do want to recognize that all my thoughts are valid and I shouldn’t have to quash any of them. And my 2021 wish is for everyone to feel the same. I hope you are thankful for your life because there is always something to be grateful for. But if the pandemic has turned your world upside down, you are allowed to be upset about that, too.
Decades from now, when I look back on 2020, I’ll surely recall the memories I made in quarantine with my family and the new hobbies I picked up during this time. But I’ll remember the resentment, anger, and helplessness I often felt throughout the year, too. The ups and downs were all a part of my 2020 experience, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m proud I made the most of the pandemic, but I can’t authentically say that I’m glad it happened. And that’s okay.