Daily Bread for 9.5.21: Tragic Optimism as an Alternative to Toxic Positivity | FREE WHITEWATER

Daily Bread for 9.5.21: Tragic Optimism as an Alternative to Toxic Positivity

Good morning.

Sunday in Whitewater will be sunny with a high of 80. Sunrise is 6:25 AM and sunset 7:21 PM, for 12h 56m 02s of daytime.  The moon is a waning crescent with 2.8% of its visible disk illuminated.

 On this day in 1781, after the Battle of the Chesapeake, the British Navy is repelled by the French Navy, contributing to the British surrender at Yorktown.

Scott Barry Kaufman writes of The Opposite of Toxic Positivity (“Tragic optimism” is the search for meaning during the inevitable tragedies of human existence, and is better for us than avoiding darkness and trying to “stay positive”):

Countless books have been written on the “power of gratitude” and the importance of counting your blessings, but that sentiment may feel like cold comfort during the coronavirus pandemic, when blessings have often seemed scant. Refusing to look at life’s darkness and avoiding uncomfortable experiences can be detrimental to mental health. This “toxic positivity” is ultimately a denial of reality. Telling someone to “stay positive” in the middle of a global crisis is missing out on an opportunity for growth, not to mention likely to backfire and only make them feel worse. As the gratitude researcher Robert Emmons of UC Davis writes, “To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.”

The antidote to toxic positivity is “tragic optimism,” a phrase coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Tragic optimism involves the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence, something far more practical and realistic during these trying times. Researchers who study “post-traumatic growth” have found that people can grow in many ways from difficult times—including having a greater appreciation of one’s life and relationships, as well as increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development, and creativity. Importantly, it’s not the traumatic event itself that leads to growth (no one is thankful for COVID-19), but rather how the event is processed, the changes in worldview that result from the event, and the active search for meaning that people undertake during and after it.


The human capacity for resiliency is quite remarkable and underrated. A recent study surveyed more than 500 people from March to May 2020. It found that even during those terrifying early months of the pandemic, more than 56 percent of people reported feeling grateful, which was 17 percent higher than any other positive emotion. Those who reported feeling more grateful also reported being happier. What’s more, even more people—69 percent of respondents—reported expecting to feel grateful two to three months in the future.

I believe that an overlooked route to gratitude is exposure to difficult circumstances. There are many basic advantages of life itself that we too often take for granted. After all, humans have a natural tendency to adapt and become used to situations that are relatively stable. When individuals become aware that their advantages are not guaranteed, many then come to appreciate them more. As the writer G. K. Chesterton put it, “Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are.”

Needless to say, there have been many with perspectives of tragic optimism long before Viktor Frankl coined the term, and there are different formulations of the perspective. (It has both religious and secular varieties.)

Indeed, much of FREE WHITEWATER is a critique of the boosterism — the accentuation of the positive without regard to real conditions —of some in Whitewater before, during, and after the Great Recession.

As much as FREE WHITEWATER is a libertarian blog, it’s also the website of a tragic optimist with a mainline Protestant formation.

Kaufman writes of tragic optimism as the opposite of toxic positivity, and he’s correct. It’s also, as he contends, a worthy alternative perspective with philosophical and practical advantages.

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