Positivity Culture


by Nikhil Umesh

 

Have you ever had a terrible day, where everything seems to have been going wrong? You’ve overslept your morning class or maybe even forgot it’s your mom’s birthday. You let a friend know, venting to them about how stressed you are, running off the events of the day. In response, the only words they muster are:

“It’ll be okay! Everything happens for a reason.”

 

Upon initial glance, their response seems to imply that life’s events, notably the “bad” ones, are inevitable, and so you need to get yourself together and work through them. But if we think about what’s oftentimes really meant by “Everything happens for a reason,” we’d see that there’s an ulterior motive behind the phrase, too — since all of life’s twists and turns are inevitable, there must be a light at the end of every tunnel, a bright side to everything.

Tunnel towards another tunnel
“Tunnel towards another tunnel” photo by Smabs Sputzer.

The phrase is one of many examples of the positivity culture we live in, where saying that “Everything happens for a reason” becomes easier than doing the most powerful thing in the moment: acknowledging someone else’s pain.

Of course, positivity isn’t all bad. Having hope for a better future or faith in things improving during testy times is something we all do. I’ve definitely said “Everything happens for a reason” to myself many times in the past. However, deploying a certain brand of compulsory positivity to people around us in an uncritical fashion has the potential to do more harm than good.

For instance, the “Everything happens for a reason” dogma does not make room for how the pain many of us experience is the result of systems of power, privilege, and oppression. Being a person of color, living under conditions of material poverty, or having a mental illness aren’t one off events that many of us can power through.

Saying “Everything happens for a reason” indicates to those living under the boot of oppression that their pain is inevitable and necessary to make a better world. Normalizing pain and trauma via the inevitability of it can romanticize suffering as “teaching moments.” Experiencing sexual violence, bullying, or daily racial microaggressions do not need to make us into better people. Pain oftentimes can enable growth, but growth does not have to be divorced from the reality that pain can also be both debilitating and stifling. 

The tired trope of the “angry” or “strong” Black woman is a mainstay of mass media and popular culture, reinforcing the myth that Black women are loud or boisterous and need to be silent in their oppression. Similarly, what does it mean to demonize negativity for people living with chronic mental illnesses? Reinforcing positivity can blame those who deal day-in and day-out with serious negative thoughts that they should’ve just “learned” from their pain, rather than wallow in it. Positivity culture blames the victim for their very acknowledgement of pain.

We have a collective responsibility to shy away from the positivity mantra spoon fed to us by the mass media and self-help books galore. Instead of paternalistic advice or rationalizations to placate people, what would it look like to hold people in their full capacity to grieve and be okay with that? To push ourselves to be there with people, to suffer with them. To listen to them.

Instead, of “Everything happens for a reason,” why not some alternatives like, “I acknowledge your pain,” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here with you”?

There’s nothing wrong with grief. Because acknowledging the nuances of pessimism and negativity creates room for emotional honesty, where genuine healing can take place.  

Nikhil was born in Bangalore, India, though spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. Before joining the staff at Student Wellness, he was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill where he studied Environmental Health Science. As a Program Assistant, Nikhil will be working closely with the recently founded Delta Advocates program and on campus messaging regarding healthy and supportive relationships. As a former UNC student, he is looking forward to working with young people on creating community-wide strategies to address, prevent, and end sexual violence and rape, while maintaining a focus on support systems that center the lived experiences and needs of survivors.

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