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In this pressure-packed, often confusing time, some people conflate gratitude with what we call toxic positivity. The two concepts and related behaviors could not be more different. Engaging in one makes us more optimistic, connected, and healthy, while the other can leave us feeling guilty, isolated, and depressed. One deals with reality, while the other ignores it.

Unfortunately, the confusion leads us to ignore and even reject a potentially powerful force that not only improves our mental health but creates greater happiness. We may believe that ignoring reality helps us cope. Yet, dealing with reality leads to healthier outcomes.

Let’s explore these two concepts and how they can influence ways in which we feel, live, cope, and grow.

Let’s begin with gratitude. Gratitude has a long history in society. In fact, Cicero called gratitude the parent of all virtues. Studies have established that having and acting on feelings of gratitude leads to greater patience, decreased depression, increased wisdom, and higher levels of honesty, generosity, patience, and perseverance. It also helps to prevent burnout.

Gratitude does not ignore reality. In fact, gratitude embraces life in all its forms. We can feel grateful in the face of tragedy and in response to triumph. Gratitude focuses our attention and emotions on others rather than keeping the focus on ourselves. Gratitude leads us to move past quick, superficial expressions of thanks to actually pausing and feeing emotion of the moment.

A powerful relationship builder, gratitude has been called the “glue” that fortifies relationships. Researchers have labeled gratitude the find, remind, and bind behavior. An attitude of gratitude helps us to find people with whom we would like to form relationships. Gratitude reminds us of what is good in our current relationships, and gratitude binds us to friends and partners by making them feel appreciated. Gratitude encourages behaviors that lengthen and strengthen relationships.

Of course, obvious benefits to having an optimistic outlook and positive attitude result. They carry us through difficult times and help us to see the positive side of situations and experiences. However, when positivity overshadows reality or discounts difficult, even tragic experiences, it becomes toxic to relationships and organizations.

High levels of toxic positivity result in not understanding, recognizing, or appreciating the challenges and circumstances faced by others. As a result, toxic positivity generates feelings of guilt when people feel sad, depressed, or stressed by circumstances they face.

Toxic positivity also creates an environment with ignored problems and unaddressed challenges. Consequently, situations deteriorate, preventing needed growth and change. Unfortunately, those who point out the reality of situations get blamed and shamed.

To summarize:

  • Gratitude is grounded and authentic while toxic positivity ignores reality and engages in wishful thinking.
  • Gratitude shares authentic emotions and builds relationships while toxic positivity leads to feelings of guilt and shame.
  • Gratitude leads to improved emotional and mental health while toxic positivity ignores feelings, creates stress, and generates feelings of depression.
  • Gratitude is growth supporting while toxic positivity stunts and undermines growth at crucial life junctures.
  • Gratitude supports others’ positive feelings and behaviors while toxic positivity leads to feelings of resentment and isolation.

These are difficult, often trying times. We need to marshal all our resources to remain healthy, grounded, and productive. Being positive is important, but it must not be carried to the point of toxicity. Gratitude, on the other hand, enjoys few limits. The more we embrace it the better we feel, the better we make others feel, and the better our organization functions.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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