Toxic positivity: societal pressure to feel good could have the opposite effect

A multi-national study of 40 countries has found that the societal pressure to feel good is linked to poorer wellbeing in individuals. In almost all countries, experiencing pressure to be happy and not sad was related to more and stronger negative feelings, and stronger symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.

Interestingly, this relationship was almost twice as strong in countries with higher national happiness, compared to those with lower national happiness – suggesting it may have downsides for some members of society.

“The level of happiness individuals feel pressured to achieve may be unattainable and reveal differences between an individual’s emotional life and the emotions society approves of,” says lead author Dr Egon Dejonckheere from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at KU Leuven, Belgium, and assistant professor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

“This discrepancy between an individual and society may create a perceived failure that can trigger negative emotions,” he explains. “In countries where all citizens appear to be happy, deviations from the expected norm are likely more apparent, which makes it more distressing.”

The international team of scientists, including Australian researchers from the University of Melbourne, investigated how the perceived societal pressure to be happy predicts emotional, cognitive, and clinical indicators of wellbeing in a survey of nearly 7,500 people.

Published in Springer Nature, the study then went a step further to evaluate the role of the nations’ global happiness levels on the relationship between societal pressure and wellbeing, using their World Happiness Index (WHI) scores.

This score is taken from the World Happiness Report and is a measure of the average self-reported life satisfaction displayed by inhabitants of a particular country. Countries included in the study that were rated as having higher happiness in the World Happiness Index included The Netherlands and Canada, while countries rated with lower happiness included Uganda and Senegal.

As a cross-sectional study, the researchers acknowledge that while these findings can highlight a correlation between these factors, it cannot prove causality. Nonetheless, they do suggest that changing societal discourse from promoting a one-sided embrace of emotions to one where people learn to appreciate the full scope of their emotional lives (both positive and negative), could have beneficial effects for people’s psychological well-being in the long run.

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