What is tragic optimism and why it can be an antidote to toxic positivity

tragic optimism
Finding meaning in the midst of chaos is not about repressing negative emotions. MALTE MUELLER / GETTY IMAGES

Over the past year and a half, as the pandemic has grown from a terrifying event to a long-term life-altering event, our coping mechanisms have had to adapt and evolve.

However, there are differences in how we have approached the time we spend in isolation.

For some, positivity was essential to cope with the crisis; many enjoyed the opportunity to slow down and reevaluate, were grateful to still have a job, or kept good things in perspective (even striking a balance between virtual education, remote work, and keeping the family safe).

Of course, staying optimistic and expressing gratitude are not bad practices, but this relentless optimism, known as “toxic positivity,” describes negative emotions as failure or weakness.

Plus, there are few things more irritating than running into a toxic positivist when you’re dealing with stark reality.

And not acknowledging difficulties can have a detrimental effect on our mental health.

Persistent reminders to reflect on “the good things we have” in the middle of a difficult situation do not make sadness, fear or anxiety go away, shows research from William and Mary College, Virginia, USA, and the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.

Instead, suppressing negative emotions can make us feel worse.

There is another mental approach that has a more realistic framing.

“Tragic optimism” proposes that life has meaning and that there is hope, while acknowledging the existence of loss, pain and suffering.

First defined by Austrian psychologist and 1985 Holocaust survivor Viktor Franklen, tragic optimism holds that there is room to experience both good and bad, and that we can grow from both.

Experts suggest that this kind of philosophy may be exactly what we have to put into practice while the pandemic lasts, and that it can help us afterward as well.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher, survived several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. GETTY IMAGES

Finding meaning amid the chaos

Tragic optimism, says psychology and philosophy journalist Emily Esfahani Smith, offers a perspective on adversity that helps people cope with crises more resiliently and grow as a result of them.

“It recognizes the difficulties, pain and suffering of what is happening and, at the same time, the ability to maintain hope,” he explains.

A cornerstone of philosophy is the ability to find meaning and purpose in the midst of challenges and setbacks.

“Suffering is part of life, and the question is: how are you going to deal with it?” Says Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning (“The Art of Cultivating a Meaningful Life,” 2017).

“Many people deny or ignore their suffering, and many other people are completely overwhelmed by it,” adds the writer.

Being tragically optimistic is a balanced term in which, instead of crushing our spirits, difficulties and challenges, they provide us with a learning moment.

For example, reframe the stress of giving a public speech as a challenge, rather than a threat.

The realities of the pandemic can make finding the silver lining a very difficult task, which is why acknowledging the loss, pain and guilt of our situations is so beneficial.

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The pandemic can be a time of learning, without ignoring the pain. XAVIER ARNAU / GETTY IMAGES

At the start of lockdowns in the UK last spring, Jessica Mead, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Swansea, tried to measure changes in well-being among citizens.

Naturally, well-being levels plummeted as a result of the pandemic, but Mead and his colleagues found that participants who displayed tragic optimism more effectively coped with the trauma of the pandemic.

Participants rated the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “I have learned to cope with and adapt to whatever life throws at me” and “I accept what cannot be changed in my life.”

Those who most strongly identified with the statements were found to display tragic optimism.

People who accepted that life comes with difficulties and were prepared for them, coped with confinements more effectively than those who did not.

Mead also found that tragic optimists looked for things like their relationships with friends and family to find meaning in life.

She notes that finding meaning in tough times is a more in-depth process than a short-term solution, like playing video games for a few hours to tune out.

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Tragic optimism can be a good way to cope with the trauma of the pandemic. GETTY IMAGES

“Focusing on the vital sense may take a little longer to develop that relationship with whatever gives each of you meaning, but it will last much longer,” he says.

From stress to growth

Our mindset may not only affect how we deal with the pandemic on a day-to-day basis, but also how we will emerge from it in the months to come.

Some people who experience a traumatic event have a hard time coping and may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a major concern for many mental health professionals as we anticipate the end of the pandemic.

This may be the case for many who depend on toxic positivity; Encouraging people to be optimistic and appreciative when they are going through very difficult times does not encourage growth on the other side of tragedy, Mead says.

And while positivity can, in the right amounts, have benefits, taken to extremes, it can also make people feel guilty, ashamed, or in denial of their true feelings.

However, others find that trauma gives them a new lease of life, an altered perspective known as post-traumatic growth.

Tragic optimism helps facilitate this: By accepting and assimilating the distressing feelings that the pandemic has imposed on us, we can use them to fuel personal development.

Paul Wong, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, says the path to that transformation can be uncomfortable because life is not easy.

“It’s okay to be alone,” he says. It’s okay to feel bad, it’s okay to feel anxious. Welcome to the human club.

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Loneliness is uncomfortable, but it can also help us heal. GETTY IMAGES

But instead of letting these negative feelings overwhelm us, or completely ignoring them, as is customary in toxic positivity, embracing tragic optimism means making a daily effort to get comfortable with loneliness or anxiety.

We can learn that we enjoy solitude, that we value community highly, or discover who we want to be after the pandemic.

So while it may seem tempting to smile and hold on, taking the slightly more awkward route of a tragic optimist can help us see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and help us take a deep breath as we reach it.

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