You’ve seen toxic positivity: it’s the over-the-top optimism filled with an almost obsessively upbeat attitude. It’s “good vibes only!” and “always look on the bright side!” It’s the denial of struggle.
It’s a lie.
The trend of rah-rah “you can do it” positivity has been growing for several years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the past year-and-a-half, I’ve noticed toxic positivity creep into our lives in scary ways. It starts small:
“Things are a struggle right now, but I know a lot of people are struggling even more, so I don’t want to say anything.”
“It could be worse. At least I don’t have COVID.”
“I feel depressed. But what do I have to be depressed about?”
When we diminish our own struggles in comparison to other people, we’re giving toxic positivity a toehold. We start to think that unless our entire world is crumbling, we should be happy. And even worse – we let other people guilt us into a forced sense of optimism.
“Look on the bright side: at least you still have a job, some people lost everything.”
“Aw, cheer up. Life doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
When I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time at age 26, people kept telling me “you’re so strong.” What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t feel strong. I felt angry and scared and jealous of other people who had their health. What they were calling “strength” was really just me knowing I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other to survive. I didn’t have a choice.
Platitudes are nothing but guilt-trips wrapped in positivity paper.
And they would say “you’ve got this!” I know they were trying to help. I know they didn’t know what else to say. But now I know that forcing positivity on someone who is struggling can do more harm than good, because it’s isolating.
All these platitudes are nothing but guilt-trips wrapped in positivity paper. And the platitudes have been increasing since the pandemic. People are all over social media trying to find the benefits of the pandemic, like time to learn a new hobby, or more hours spent at home with family. Finding the bright side of this terrifying past year-and-a-half has become a badge of honor for the privileged.
It’s not *wrong* to find benefits in struggle. If that’s how you really feel, great! But when large numbers of people start to publicize and promote “finding the good” in something, what happens if you don’t agree? What happens if you feel crummy?
It’s like the emperor’s new clothes: you don’t want to speak up for fear of being ridiculed. Everybody else seems to have found the silver lining, so you don’t want to seem ungrateful for the good things you have. You don’t want to be shunned from the group dynamic, so you force yourself to participate.
Forcing positivity on someone who is struggling can do more harm than good.
And that’s when toxic positivity gets you. You don’t feel positive, but you fake it. You force it, because otherwise you worry people will judge you for being negative.
Having a positive attitude is an asset. It’s a good idea to build habits into your life that help you reflect, reframe, and feel gratitude. But having a positive attitude doesn’t mean you’re happy all the time. It means you can be sad when you should be sad, or disappointed when you should be disappointed, but that you’re able to balance those feelings with feelings of happiness when something happens that should make you happy. Being a real person means allowing both sides of your feelings to flourish.
True positivity isn’t forced. It’s not guilt-tripped or coerced. You can’t be shamed into it. You can only build it.
In 2022, maybe our culture can stop rejecting feelings of negativity as shameful. Feeling bad doesn’t make you a bad person, especially in times like these. Let’s reject toxic positivity and start appreciating the messy, up-and-down nature of true positivity. It’s not as meme-able, but at least it’s real.
There’s a reason you don’t enjoy getting feedback (and it isn’t because you have a big ego!) It’s because feedback challenges your mental concept of yourself.
Here’s what you need to know to be a little more flexible and get better at receiving feedback.
When I married my husband, he was really good cook. I could feed myself but I was not (okay, I still am not!) what anyone would call a really good cook. I am the person who lit the toaster oven on fire when I was in college! Apparently, too much cheese dripped down into the coils. But the good news is I learned how to use a fire extinguisher that day! That’s a life skill.
When my husband and I got engaged, I thought, “I am going to learn how to cook. I think that would be a good skill for me to have. I’m going to learn how to cook.” I started taking cooking classes. I learned how to roast a chicken. I learned how to hold my knives, learned the most efficient way to chop an onion. I felt like a real grown up. My cooking got incrementally better with practice, but it was still just… okay. I was practicing all the time – I worked fewer hours than he was, so I’d pull out the Cooking Light magazine and cook us dinner most nights a week. He’d cook about once a week, and his food was just better than mine. Significantly better. He was so confident in kitchen, and his food was so full of flavor.
And then we went on our honeymoon.
We ended up in Italy, where I ate 5 meals a day, 4 of them pasta. Our first Sunday home after we got back from Rome, we were grocery shopping. There, at the checkout, was a copy of Gourmet Magazine: “The Pasta Issue.” And the photo on the cover was of penne salsiccia, which I’d had a LOT of in Italy. I thought to myself, “Oh, this is a sign.” I threw that magazine down on the conveyor belt and committed to reading it cover to cover.
The next Sunday, I had my grocery list ready. I was going to make that Penne Salsiccia from the cover. I was so excited. My husband and I were going around the grocery store shopping. We pick up the sausage. We pick up the cheese. I grab the heavy whipping cream. It was when I was putting the heavy whipping cream in the cart that he looks at all the heavy ingredients, looks back at me and he goes, “Is this from Cooking Light?”. Since that’s where almost all of my recipes came from, he was surprised.
I said, “No, this is not from Cooking Light. This is from that gourmet magazine. We’re going to make real Italian pasta like we had on our honeymoon.”
That evening, I was so excited to get started.
6pm. I’m starting dinner. This recipe calls for VERY expensive, very fragile threads of Saffron to be soaked in water. I’m trying not to panic.
6:28. I’m trying not to scald the heavy whipping cream in the pan.
6:47. I’m trying not to overcook the pasta
6:52. I carry the plates out to the table. I set them down with a deep breath. For a moment I consider letting my husband take the first bite and tell me what he thinks but then I think FORGET THAT THIS WAS MY IDEA I MADE THIS MEAL. I put the bite in my mouth and I turn to my husband in shock.
I can’t believe what I’m tasting.
“I don’t stink at cooking! Cooking Light must stink at cooking! Because I. am. AMAZING” I would have said more but I needed to use my mouth for the important work of eating my phenomenal pasta.
Here’s what I realized: I had a materials problem. I had been trying for years to solve it with more skills training.
I’m sure nothing like that has ever happened to you has it? No workplace of yours would EVER try to solve a materials problem with more skills training, right? <wink, wink>.
But that’s what happens when we jump to solve a problem too quickly, “Oh, I know what the problem is. I know what the problem is.” Action bias is a common impulse. It’s a feeling of being compelled to act quickly and solve a problem, and psychologists think it happens in order to regain a sense of control over a situation. There’s a cultural conditioning that can occur, where we learn as children to favor action over waiting, because waiting could be interpreted as “laziness” or “indecisiveness.” So action bias isn’t just internal – there’s a lot of societal pressure to take action! In some cases, we can even be rewarded tangibly for being the kind of person who leaps to action and solves problems quickly.
If we want to thrive and be successful in an uncertain environment (like we’re all in in 2021!), we need to give ourselves time to experiment. Time to think about what the problem could really be and what else we could really do about it so that we’re certain we get to the right answer. If the past two years have given us anything, it’s the opportunity to take a moment to make sure that we’re solving problems the right way and not the wrong way.
Employees who have been around awhile can struggle with change. It’s harder to let go of “the way we’ve always done it,” when it’s been a long time.
But older employees don’t struggle with ALL of the change process, just that first step of letting go. Seasoned employees bring many benefits to the change process, including making successful decisions on how to move forward.
My research showed some surprising strengths that older employees have when dealing with change. If you’ve been in your position awhile, or you manage a seasoned work force, check this out!
If being happy was easy, everyone would do it. Instead, there’s a lot of disagreement over what makes true happiness and how we should achieve it. One thing is clear – real long-term happiness depends more on individual interpretation than the specific situation. Two people can have the same experiences, and one person can report being happy while another person reports feeling unfulfilled.
So if happiness depends on how you interpret your life, are there ways you can choose to be more positive? The answer appears to be yes. There are specific habits and practices that happy people have in common. By choosing to adopt these strategies, you’ll be more likely to reframe your life experiences (both positive and negative!) in a way that can allow you to be as happy as possible.
Helping other people is one of the fastest ways to get perspective on your own problems. When I started researching my first book, The Giving Prescription, I expected to find that volunteering helped people get perspective after going through a trauma. But what surprised me was WHY. I assumed that the reason volunteerism helped was because of something called “downward perspective,” meaning when you volunteer, you’re around people less fortunate than yourself, and being exposed to the less fortunate makes you feel grateful for what you have. That can play a role, but it’s not the biggest factor.
A major reason volunteering boosts perspective is because when you give to someone else, you’re increasing your personal power. Sometimes in life we can start feeling helpless or powerless. It may feel like there’s nothing we can do to fix our situation. But when you give back, you have the opportunity to realize that you could have just changed someone’s life. And that boosts your sense of personal power, which increases your self-confidence. Whether you formally become a volunteer through a nonprofit, or you make it a regular habit to give back your community, volunteering will give you the perspective you need to start on your path to happiness.
Practicing self-care is on a lot of happiness lists. Some people recommend you work out and eat healthy. Others say you should meditate or take daily bubble baths. It matters less WHAT you do, than that you do it at all. Taking care of yourself isn’t optional for happy people.
A friend of mine once told me “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” I was running myself ragged trying to succeed at work and at home and in my volunteer life… and I was exhausted. I was happy that other people were pleased with my efforts, but I wasn’t HAPPY. How could I be happy, when I was miserably running myself into the ground? I had to realize that making other people proud of me wasn’t the same as being truly happy within myself.
What does “taking care of yourself” mean to you? It can be physical, mental, or emotional… as long as you find your own version and seek it out.
I had to realize that making other people proud of me wasn’t the same as being truly happy within myself.
When I first heard of gratitude journals, I admit I thought they sounded a little… fluffy. Like, kumbaya, let’s all hold hands and talk about what we’re thankful for around the campfire. Then I hit a period of feeling depressed, when the bad things in my life felt ever-present, and the good things in life seemed to evaporate. In the middle of a rant to my husband about how terribly my life was going, he said “whatever happens, you’ll always have my love.”
That moment stopped me cold, because I realized what I was saying to him. If “everything sucks and nothing good ever happens to me,” I’m insulting my marriage. I’m saying his love isn’t something to be grateful for. That day, when I picked up a pen to vent in my journal about my frustrations, I made sure to balance every negative out with a positive. I didn’t do it in list format. I just noted my struggles as usual, but then afterward I wrote about one strength to balance out each struggle.
I have a friend who writes a thank you note every work day. Her postage stamp budget must be through the roof! But that’s how she spends time expressing gratitude. Maybe prayer is a good way for you to express gratitude. Heck, even a text message is better than nothing! But at least once a week, do something to reflect on (and hopefully express) what’s going right. When you focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong, it’s much easier to foster happiness.
We live in a world of speed. The faster we can make decisions and solve problems, the better. Moving on quickly in the face of an upset is considered a skill. There’s even a name for it: action-bias. We’re primed to want to move fast and put our problems behind us.
When we move quickly, we aren’t always taking the time to make the best choices. For the past 3 years, I’ve been researching how people can successfully move on when situations in their life change. One common thread I found in my research is that making smart decisions (especially in uncertain environments and changing situations) takes time.
We’re all busy people, but thoughtfulness matters. When you resist jumping to action just to be in motion, and instead pause to gather information, you’re more likely to make smart choices. Don’t do the next thing on the list just because it’s the next thing on the list. Don’t get caught up in accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake. Happy people take time to reflect on whether their choice is the right choice for long-term good.
Happiness is elusive. It’s more of a regular practice than a destination. Work these 4 habits into your regular behaviors and try to think about them at least once a week. If you do, you’ll be on the path to building happiness in no time.
So much is changing in our work lives right now!
If you’re wondering how to communicate with your staff about upcoming changes, there are two simple rules of thumb to follow:
More, and Sooner.
More info rather than less, and sooner rather than later. The “old” way of doing things used to be that managers only revealed information once it was all hammered out and set in stone. But if you wait until everything is finalized and about to roll out, your staff could feel blindsided and kept in the dark.
Especially after the past year-and-a-half we’ve all had, your team will appreciate the transparency of more information, sooner. Here’s how to do it…
With COVID-infection rates dropping, associations and organizations are starting to gather together again at conferences. As your group starts to consider future events, should you hire an industry-specific speaker to keynote your conference, or an external speaker who doesn’t work in your industry?
There are pros and cons to both choices. (you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?)
If you choose an industry-specific keynote speaker, you’ll likely be working with someone you already know. They may even already be planning to come to your conference anyway!
Pros of choosing an industry-specific keynote speaker:
- Relevant knowledge of industry keywords, acronyms, and issues
- Case-studies from only organizations in the industry
- The possibility of saving money, as many association members will present pro bono for organizations of which they are a member
If your organization and industry are in a stable position with very little change on the horizon, selecting a member of your group to deliver the keynote speech could be a smart decision.
If your field has been facing uncertainty (like almost all fields have in the wake of COVID), it’s smart to consider bringing in someone from outside of your industry. Research shows that input from diverse fields helps increase creative problem-solving abilities. Diverse experiences and opinions leads to thought-provoking conversation and innovative ideas. When everyone at the table shares the same background, our choices and options can tend to stay close to status quo.
In order to break out of the rut of “the way we’ve always done things,” we need to gather ideas from people outside of our own industries.
Additionally, people are getting excited to come back to live events. They don’t want to see what they’ve seen dozens of times before. They want energy and interaction and excitement.
The Pros of choosing an external speaker in 2021:
- Your industry needs an outside perspective.
- “The way we’ve always done it” is becoming obsolete, and you need to underscore that with a fresh voice
- External speakers are professionals at crafting a participative (but safe!) experience that will bring the energy your people are craving
- If your event will be hybrid, an external speaker will have the ability to engage both the in-person audience and the home audience at the same time, so no one will feel left out of the experience
For your post-COVID conferences, you’ll have lots of options (isn’t that a great feeling, after the year+ we’ve had?) To keep your attendees engaged and ready to move forward, consider a blend of industry-specific speakers and professional keynote speakers.
“Things are getting better… so why do I still feel crummy?”
A woman asked me that question last night at an event, and it’s VERY relevant. I feel the same way.
Life is starting to get back to “normal.” We’re more able to do things we love. And yet we can also feel nervous, uncertain, frustrated, and just plain traumatized from the upheaval of the past year+. Maybe you feel guilty that you aren’t just 100% thrilled and ready to run headlong back into the world again.
I have a couple of ideas to help you deal with this feeling caught between two worlds.
The world is showing signs of emerging from its long, COVID-19 fog. As restrictions lift, groups gather, and businesses bounce back, people are expressing excitement to return to some kind of normalcy.
But if you aren’t prepared for the changes we’re going to be experiencing – both individually and within organizations – the transition into a post-COVID world may not be comfortable or successful for you. Here are 4 important problems to avoid as you shake off the COVID fog.
Trap #1: Going back to “The Plan” Post-COVID
Most of us were raised to believe that successful people make a plan, work hard, and get rewarded. So it’s no surprise that we want to cling to The Plan at all costs, even when circumstances change.
In 2021, I worked with the University of Northern Colorado to conduct research on how well people can adapt, and 74% of respondents expressed an unwillingness to improvise, change, and learn as they go in unfamiliar situations. Most of us struggle in some way when forced to redirect our plans and goals.
The Plan is alluring. It feels comfortable. It feels like the shortest path to success. But it’s not the same world as it was in 2019. You’re not the same person. To more easily let go of The Plan, remind yourself that The Plan 1.0 had problems, too. You may not have gotten far along enough on the journey to find them yet, but they were there. Spend your energy focusing on how to make The Plan 2.0 (or 3.0, or 117.0) the best it can be.
Trap #2: Expecting to Feel Better Right Away
There’s a lot to celebrate as more people get vaccinated and regular activities can start to resume. There’s also a lot to feel conflicted about. How do we celebrate when so many have died? How do we get excited when so many have lost everything?
Even if you’re personally MORE than ready to had back into the office or send kids back to school, and you have no fear of variants popping up, you might run into unexpected grief for the months you missed.
For the healthiest re-entry, don’t ignore the potential for grief to pop back up in surprising ways. Allow yourself to have mixed feelings about letting go of The Plan 1.0 (see above). In my research, the younger you are the easier it may be for you to move on to a new plan, possibly because you’ve invested less time than if you’re older (and committed to your plans for a longer time).
Trap #3: Thinking You Have to Operate at 100% Immediately
If you’re a “do-er” like me, you may be chomping at the bit to resume what feels like normal levels of productivity. But trying to go from wherever you are to top speed may surprisingly make you less successful.
Because of something called action-bias, many of us are primed to jump to action before we fully evaluate our options. Scientists who study brainstorming say the ideas that come up later in the brainstorming process that are more innovative and creative. Take advantage of this time to come up with new goals and strategies. Maybe the pandemic exposed new opportunities for your business or your life. Maybe it revealed gaps that you now know how to fix.
Resist the temptation to dive in and make up for lost time post-COVID. Instead, use this time intentionally to create new goals and new ways of operating that will lead to greater accomplishment in the long run.
Trap #4: Navigating Change Alone
What do you think of when you think of a resilient person? Many people imagine someone with a sense of toughness who draws on internal strength. In reality, studies show the most resilient people aren’t lone wolves relying on their own inner power, but those with strong support systems.
Many of us have spent parts of the pandemic alone or in small bubbles. We may be (or feel) less connected than we’ve ever been. But lone-wolfing isn’t a good way to accomplish your goals. In my research, the older you are, the better you get at leaning on others to help you… and the more you seek input and advice from others, the smarter the decisions you make!
Ready or Not…
If you’re expecting to run headlong back into “the way things used to be” at top speed, be prepared for a rude awakening. The changes we’re about to experience as we go *back* to life post-COVID are not that much different than the changes we faced when the world shuddered to a halt in early 2020. There will be changes, both operationally and emotionally. But if you’re prepared for them, you’ll be able to successfully make the transition back.