Happiness Part 1: Emotional Honesty and Toxic Positivity

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Photo by Stephen VanHove on Unsplash

A lot of my recent posts have focused a lot on loneliness, isolation. and sadness. Partly this is because I think that, while diseases in general have isolating effects (both physical, societal, and mental) the current Covid-19 pandemic poses really interesting questions about loneliness since so many people in so many countries around the world are self-quarantining and self-isolating at the exact same time. As I mentioned in one of my very first coronavirus posts, we are all together and alone in this crisis, and we are also made increasingly more aware of this fact (due to technology, news media, social media, etc) even as we continue to be made more alone. I believe this paradox lies at the center of our moment and everything that will come after it, and so I think it is useful to explore its nuances and crevices here. 

Of course, I am also going through my own journey and experiences with self-quarantine, as well as the anxiety of this whole situation. It can be hard some days to cut through my own confusion, or panic, or mind-numbness, and attempt to write something, let alone something I hope will be found meaningful. And yet writing these has been so helpful in organizing my own thoughts as well, and helping me cope with some of the issues I have written about. 

On Friday, after I had finished publishing my post, a colleague reached out to me, telling me how much they enjoyed reading my posts, and that if I felt lonely and wanted to talk to someone, I could talk to them. I was really touched by this, and I did cry a bit afterwards (I am basically always on the verge of tears nowadays) because I miss my coworkers and these posts are in some ways a way of connecting with them, and also because this pandemic sometimes has such a strange and beautiful power to get people to empathize and reach out. I will repeat again how grateful I am for my coworkers right now. 

So I am extremely lonely, and not lonely at the same time. I am both sad and comforted. I am anxious and calm. Those are my emotions, and make no claims that this is how everyone is feeling. This may not even be how I am feeling a day from now either. But I want to be honest about my emotions here, whether they are positive or negative. This week I am thinking about discussing happiness–what it means now, how we can think about approaching it in this atmosphere, how we are in a place to change how we feel about it. And to do that I think we need to be as honest as possible about how we actually feel in order to come to terms with happiness. Because for so long many of us have been told not to.

I have felt for a while now, even before this pandemic and subsequent period of self-isolation hit, that loneliness–and sadness too–are not exclusive to one set of situations or life experiences. Someone in a loving, long-term relationship might feel lonely, while someone who is single might not. A person who is sociable and has tons of friends may feel more lonely on any given day than the person sitting by themselves at the table in the corner. The one smiling the most might not necessarily be the one who is most happy. 

There is a concept that I have been thinking a lot about lately, called “toxic positivity”. This is the idea that we should always try to be stay happy and positive; that we should just try to think happy thoughts and always look at the bright side; that if we allow ourselves to dwell on negative thoughts and emotions, then it’s our own fault if we are sad or lonely. I think this notion shows up in a lot of our pre-pandemic activities, from the way we used social media to depict our lives to the conspicuous flaunting of travel, leisure, and wealth.

Critiquing toxic positivity is not to say that all positivity is harmful. On the contrary. But what it does mean is that forcing ourselves–and others–to be positive and display positivity at all times is destructive, and willfully ignores the contours of our lives that may give us meaning and insight. Toxic positivity says things like “Failure is not an option” and “Things aren’t that bad”. Instead of recognizing pain and suffering, it glosses over them for the sake of moving on.

Many of us are alone right now. Many of us are having to face ourselves in the mirror for the first time in a while, and to speak the truth. I think that is one of the hardest things to do, and the first people we lie to are ourselves. But there is enormous strength in admitting vulnerability. 

I am hopeful that we can find the means to be honest about how we feel, and that in this moment of honesty we can also find the strength to look beyond ourselves and to the wider society that we live in and how toxic positivity has influenced so much. Perhaps instead of ignoring issues like mental health and inequality, we can finally deal with them more openly and humanely, and open up spaces to acknowledge people on the margins and their pain.

It is looking like this epidemic will last for quite some time. Even in the event that a lot of restrictions are lifted in May or June, there will be a lot of fear and hesitation that still lingers on and prevails. That’s why I think it is so important to really reflect on the issues surrounding our feelings, and learn to be honest about them. We may even discover new things about our own inner strength and happiness that we never knew before, which will last us through these hard times.

Tomorrow is another day, and I will (hopefully) have the chance to explore happiness more, this time through the lens of “escapism” and my thoughts about how people are coping with this Covid-19 situation. 

But for now–stay safe, stay home, stay strong, and stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff of Nazobako/Invite Japan

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