The antidote to toxic positivity – Tragic Optimism

Amidst all the global health crisis and unrelenting optimistic quotes floating on Instagram and Pinterest, “Tragic Optimism” serves as a way of living.

Viktor Frankl – the Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist – first coined the term tragic optimism. Frankl explains first about the tragic triad of human lives – pain, guilt, and death. Thus, tragic optimism is an optimism in the face of the tragic triad and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (a) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (b) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (c) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action. [1]

Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.

– Viktor E. Frankl

Frankl initially advocated that tragic optimism holds a space to experience both the good and the bad in human lives, and that we can grow from each. [2] Furthermore, Emily Esfahani Smith – author of the critically acclaimed book The Power of Meaning – argues that there is hope and meaning can be found in life while also acknowledging the existence of the tragic triad of human life. Smith further mentions, “When researchers and clinicians look at who copes well in crisis and even grows through it, it’s not those who focus on pursuing happiness to feel better; it’s those who cultivate an attitude of tragic optimism.” [3]

The problems with toxic positivity is that it paints negative emotions as a failure or weakness. Moreover, toxic positivity is a form of denial – which completely disregards the current adverse situation and focuses solely on the “bright side”. With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.

Failing to acknowledge the hardships in life can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Persistent reminders to reflect on ‘how good we have it’ in the midst of strife and struggle don’t make sadness, fear or anxiety dissipate, research shows. Instead, suppressing negative emotions can actually make us feel worse

Is ‘Tragic Optimism’ what we need right now?

The COVID pandemic has not just threatened our physical health but also emotional and mental well-being of people around the world. According to psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who coined the term “post-traumatic growth” in the 1990s, the people who grew after a crisis spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what happened and understanding how it changed them. In other words, they search for and find positive meaning.

Similar instances have happened in the past. To illustrate the effectiveness of tragic optimism, Smith points to a study conducted after the events of September 11. In general, people reported higher instances of fear, anxiety, or hopelessness—but the emotions were more debilitating for some than others. After a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose, develop deeper relationships, have a greater appreciation of life and report other benefits. It’s not the adversity itself that leads to growth. It’s how people respond to it.

Tragic Optimism: Search for meaning than happiness

Frankl himself suggests that this is the core of the human spirit – if we can find something to live for; if we can find some meaning to put at the center of our lives, even the worst kind of suffering becomes bearable.

But how do we find meaning in our lives? Frankl reiterates that there are three main sources of meaning in life: 1) creating a work or doing a deed;  2) experiencing something or encountering someone (as in love);  and 3) transcending, learning, and finding meaning from the inevitable suffering which we will experience. Thus, Frankl argues, we can find meaning despite the tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death.

At the start of lockdowns in the UK last spring, Jessica Mead, a PhD student in the psychology department at Swansea University, sought to measure changes in wellbeing among residents. Naturally, wellbeing levels plummeted as a result of the pandemic, but Mead and her colleagues found participants who showed tragic optimism coped more effectively with the trauma of the pandemic.

Finally, relying in part on Viktor Frankl’s notion of “tragic optimism,” we should be considering how we may begin to reconsider our traumas as not just endings of what is, but beginnings of what still might be. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Even in dire circumstances, we still have a freedom to make our choice. As Frankl writes, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Life may be tragic, but we should remain optimistic that it meaningful nonetheless—life even in its most tragic manifestations provides ways to make life meaningful.

Toxic Positivity – The Dark Side of Bright Side

Relax, bro! Why are you always so pessimistic? Don’t think all that negative stuff. Come on, be positive, man. It’s going to be alright, be happy!

This statement has undertones of a classic toxic positivity. I’ve heard this (or similar) phrase a lot whenever I shared about my problems, setbacks, and failures. In all honesty, this was my go-to phrase and an automated advice for anyone who shared their problems with me as well. This advice largely never worked for me, and I’m pretty sure it has not worked for others as well.

Given that we all hear these phrases every now and then, and given the internet world full of motivational instagram posts & pinterest images, the toxic positivity is not only futile in solving our problems, but also creates additional problems for us.


Those thoughts that pops up and makes us feel worried, guilty, and/or ashamed is termed as “intrusive thoughts”. All those thoughts of “What if I’m not as good as others think?“, “Why am I always a burden to others?“, “I’m the worst person in the world” are examples of intrusive thoughts which can cause distress, since its nature might be upsetting. Even if one is of a sound mind and free from mental health issues, it is possible to be struck by intrusive thoughts out of nowhere.

So why do we have intrusive thoughts? Turns out, these thoughts are what kept humans alive, with our brain’s flight or fight response. Our brains have evolved to keep us safe by continually scanning for dangers. These thoughts are the results from danger scans.

What keeps the thought going? Simple – we try to avoid it. That is what keeps the thought going. The more we try to push it away, more it sticks to us.

Learn about thoughts escalation here.


Simple exercise:

Whatever you do, do NOT think about GIANT RATS. Just don’t. DO NOT THINK ABOUT GIANT RATS. I repeat – DO NOT! Master Splinter? I said don’t!

How did it go?

This is a common brain paradox – If we are trying to avoid a thought, our brain focuses on it more. Scumbag brain!

This is exactly why the “don’t think about it” advice never works. If you suppress thinking about your ex, you’ll eventually think more about him/her. This study on paradoxical effects of thought suppression proves that when you’re asked not to think about something, it actually makes you more likely to think about it.

As Mark Manson, author of ‘The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck’ writes, “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.


Toxic or forced positivity – Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist, explains this term as the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’ emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or “positive vibes”.

Toxic positivity can take many forms: It can be a family member or a friend who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. It can be a suggestion to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have” by completely discarding the problems.

In this time of COVID-19 global pandemic, the situation is even more dire. This pandemic has intensified the already unprecedented and uncertain future, and our automated reflexes is most likely to be overly optimistic or positive to avoid accepting a dreaded reality. Let’s accept – our lives aren’t just roses, but with thorns as well. And as Susan David, PhD says, “We will find ourselves in situations where we will feel anger, sadness and grief and so on. Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard.


Several studies (Gross and Levenson, 1997) show that suppressing thoughts and hiding or denying feelings leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings

In Gross and Levenson’s study, research participants were divided into two groups and shown disturbing medical procedure films while their stress responses were measured (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation, sweat production). One group was asked to watch the videos while letting their emotions show whereas the second group of subjects were asked to watch the films and act as if nothing were bothering them.

The result? Those participants who suppressed their emotions (acted as if nothing bothered them) had significantly more physiological changes . The emotional suppressors may have appeared cool and calm but on the inside their stress was erupting!

Courtesy of The Psychology Group, you can find how to turn toxic positive advices to non-toxic acceptance and validation here.

Let’s understand – suppressing, denying, and avoiding does not work. Sometimes, we need to ACCEPT the negatives. Furthermore, as mentioned in this paper, the ability to regulate our emotions is associated with greater well-being, income, and socio-economic status. Accepting the negative, and navigating what our emotions are telling us is the step forward to overcome this spiral of intrusive thoughts & toxic positivity rumination. Also, tragic optimism can be the antidote to toxic positivity. I’ll explain more about this in my next post.

Remember: It’s okay not to be okay.