Toxic Positivity or Grounded Gratefulness? What It Means to be Thankful in 2021

A counterintuitive approach to gratitude in the most toxic times of our lives

The usual response I would get when expressing any form of negative emotion is that I should be thankful for everything happening in my life.

Perhaps it’s that implied givenness―that expressing gratefulness is the proper response to everything, from social discontent to personal feelings of sadness―that has kept me from embracing the habit of being grateful. A quick search of easy ways to be more grateful daily would yield helpful tips, but, when it comes to negative emotions, would forget to mention how best to respond appreciatively. With a seemingly privileged habit of toxic positivity and an unpredictable year and color me confused as to how to really respond at the mercy of such dystopian events.

Something about articles stopping short of sharing healthy ways of responding gratefully to any form of crisis just doesn’t sit right with me. With everything happening, remaining in a toxic positivity frame of mind can register like a form of disconnection from the rest of the world and its challenges. Sure, affirmations are valuable and can be a source of motivation, but is another listicle with a thesis of live, laugh, love the healing balm to all of this?

There’s nothing objectively wrong about being grateful; there are just certain points where it can get in the way of forming balanced emotional responses to changes in our lives. Live, laugh, love when used in excess is an example of toxic positivity, which according to Boston Clinical Health psychologist Natalie Dattilo “stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative [italics added].”

The origins of toxic positivity are unclear, but one way that you may be unconsciously doing it is if you’re thinking positively without acknowledging a problem, which Dattilo mentions may halt further introspection. In a way, toxic positivity can be like placing a smiley face sticker on a child’s worksheet they got wrong and telling them how nice the sticker is, but not telling the child they got it wrong. It’s finding this balance of acknowledging a problem and being thankful for the opportunity to try again which is the challenge; it’s making space for gratitude that goes from clinging to “it will all be fine,” to moving forward with “I’m working toward it being fine because I’m making these changes.”

In sincerely greeting a new year, it is thus crucial to reevaluate what gratitude means in these times. As quoted in Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times by Nick Montgomery and Carla Bergman, author and community activist Zainab Amadahy emphasized that

“You can be thankful and still want the world to be better, want your life to be better. At the same time, I don’t think it’s healthy to be grateful in every moment. Sometimes grief, sadness, or fear is the appropriate and healthy response. But when the crisis has passed or it’s a chronic situation, focusing one’s attention on what there is to be grateful for literally eases the pain — physical, mental, and emotional.”

In moments after a crisis, Amadahy highlights how gratitude soothes. This isn’t saying gratitude is something that is only helpful temporarily. In fact, being thankful while recognizing one’s thoughts and feelings toward negative experiences has been shown to improve mental well-being over time. According to a 2017 study, even among individuals with mental health concerns, “practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”

In the same study, researchers found that this change leads people to be more attentive about how they express gratitude, which translates into greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision-making. Past studies on this specific part of the brain note its ability to recall the best action or emotional response to specific events in a particular place and time. Having an active prefrontal cortex is tied to increased well-being and reduced anxiety, as well as better physical pain management.

In a detailed guide on grounded ways to practice daily gratitude, two points mention the circumstances leading up to the aspirational mindset that Amadahy suggests:

  1. Remember the Bad. To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times you experienced. When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.

Remembering the bad can leave room for future aspirations and concrete actionable goals, While asking the three questions invites more introspection about the situations to be thankful for, particularly in terms of what troubles or difficulty one may have caused. Without spiraling into self-blame, recognizing one’s individual responsibility for an action is a crucial step to real gratitude. The situations that one responds to with accountability, gratitude, grief, sadness, or fear can then become equal opportunities to see where things could be better.

Perhaps what’s most critical to grounded affirmations is the permission to loathe as much as we are encouraged to live, laugh, and love. Physician Jena Martin emphasizes the importance of living a wholeheartedly honest life in her article for Salon saying, “we have to accept our lives as they are and not deny the uncomfortable uncertainties.”

As we’re all reeling from a year full of ambiguity, it doesn’t hurt to accept life as it is now and feel negative emotions, while also holding onto the truth that there will always be a way to move forward.

Maybe it won’t be as smooth or as quick as we’d hoped for, but soon enough, it will come.

This article was written by our contributor, Pia Salazar.

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