Go back ten years or so, and positivity ruled. All those chirpy memes, all those people ready to tell you to make the best of things and find the silver lining and quick to give you a verbal slapping if they thought you were wallowing in misery or just doing it for the attention.
These days I see more online content deconstructing toxic positivity than I see people spouting it. I see more people talking about the realities of living with mental illness, grief, chronic physical conditions, trauma, neurodivergence and combinations of those things. I see fewer people suggesting that it would be all fine if you just tried to be more upbeat and maybe did some mindfulness. This is huge progress. At the moment we haven’t reached the level of a societal shift, but this is how that sort of thing comes to happen.
When I first started questioning the idea of relentless positivity, I didn’t even have words for what I was taking issue with. I don’t know who coined the term ‘toxic positivity’ but all power to them. It’s helpful having neat labels for things. When I was first trying to talk about things I experience as a person with a wonky body, and as a consequence of trauma and mental health impacts, I didn’t have ‘ableism’ as a word. I’ve been glad of that one, too, and of the work done by many people to identify what that means and how we deal with it.
Over the years, I’ve seen a number of issues I wanted to engage with getting picked up by increasing numbers of people. I’ve seen change beginning. When we share ideas and amplify each other, new things become possible. More people come to understand an issue. Societies are just large numbers of people, and societies can and do change in response to grass roots movement. So much can change if enough people want that to happen. And while big, heroic gestures can be attention grabbing and can advance a cause, there’s a lot to be said for people making small, everyday efforts to raise awareness, challenge convention and offer alternatives.