top of page

Positive Vibes vs. Positive Vibes ONLY

For centuries, people have been seeking answers to the deeper questions of life from religion and spirituality. Although people have good intentions when they seek spiritual answers, at times, spiritual beliefs can be used by the corrupt as well as the pure in heart. Spirituality and religion can be used to enforce the social order, and to put some people in power while taking power away from others.

One example I have seen of this recently is what I have heard described alternatingly as "toxic positivity" and "rich white woman spirituality." Much of this is spread through social media, and ideas such as those put forward by some proponents of the law of attraction.

According to Psychology Today,

Toxic positivity can make dealing with an already distressing experience worse. Instead of getting support, they get handed guilt and shame for not being more “positive” and they get to feel even more powerless since they can’t change how they feel. The lack of social support can increase the sense of isolation.

Bad things happen in the world all the time. When we reject people's lived experience of suffering, it is not only insensitive but ultimately harmful. This makes people who have mental health conditions, are struggling with poverty, racism feel like their struggles are being minimized.

No one can be happy all the time. It isn't realistic or reasonable to expect that from the people in your circle, and shaming people for feeling bad when something bad happens is counterproductive to their healing.

According to Very Well Mind, here are some examples of toxic positivity:

  • When something bad happens, such as losing your job, people may say to “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” While such comments are often meant to be sympathetic, they can shut down anything the other person might want to say about what they are experiencing.

  • After experiencing some type of loss, people might say that “everything happens for a reason.” While people will make such statements because they believe they are comforting, this is also a way of avoiding the other person's pain.

  • Upon expressing disappointment or sadness, someone may respond that “happiness is a choice.” This suggests that if someone is feeling negative emotions, it’s their own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.

When we blatantly assume that anyone can choose to be happy at any time, often this comes from a point of view of privilege, and a lack of understanding about what it means to suffer or to experience trauma. It is an out-of-touch response to people with very real problems who can't just use the power of positive thinking to magically make all their problems go away.

Positive thinking doesn't put food on the table, it doesn't pay your bills, it doesn't bring a lost loved one back to life. It is normal to feel sad or upset when something bad happens to you. It is part of the human condition that we all suffer. A refusal to admit this is a refusal to accept reality.

Do people choose their suffering?

Recently, I was reading a law of attraction book that I ended up putting down, because one of the ideas it put forth really was bothering me. The idea was called the "law of allowing" and puts forward the idea that we have to allow other people to live their own lives as they choose.

This becomes problematic, however, when it leads to the idea that people choose their suffering, so you should allow their suffering. To me, that just sounds like a cop out on the idea of social responsibility. The vast majority of the time, people don't choose their suffering.

War, famine, hunger, disease, prejudice, global warming... the list goes on and on. People don't choose most of this, They don't choose the family they are born into, the country where they originate, or their socioeconomic strata in society.

When we blame suffering on the people who are suffering, we absolve ourselves of a moral obligation to do anything about it. We absolve ourselves of social responsibilities, and the need to strive for true goodness.

Spirituality promotes good works

Religion and spirituality are supposed to inspire us towards altruism, compassion, love and acts of service to others.

According to the Bible (James 2:14-17):

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

We show our faith and our goodness in the way that we treat other people. Our faith and our spirituality aren't doing us - or anyone else - any good if they come from a selfish place in our hearts. Spirituality that doesn't lead to a greater degree of kindness and compassion is a spirituality that hasn't gone far enough to be of any real use.

True, practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, prayer and contemplation can accomplish much good in individual people's lives. They can make us happier and healthier. But if they aren't making us better people too, then we aren't going far enough.

According to Lion's Roar,

In the Buddhist tradition, compassion and love are seen as two aspects of same thing: compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness.

One of the goals in Buddhism is to find compassion for all living beings. This is similar to Jesus's teaching to "love your neighbor as yourself."

All of the ancient traditions have laws of conduct, that are meant to help people live more harmoniously with each other in society. Whether it is the Code of Hammurabi, the 10 commandments, or the 8 fold path, they all teach us to treat each other in a loving and harmonious way.

According to ABC, here are what 5 major religious traditions have to say about kindness:

  • "[In Islam], the Prophet says kindness is a marker of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith."

  • "[As a Sikh] the whole concept of your being is service to others, sharing what you have and being mindful and kind."

  • [In Judiasm] The highest form of charity is an act of kindness — offering people training so they no longer need to rely on monetary gifts.

  • He says charity is a responsibility for Christians, but adds that the act of giving can also be a joy.

  • [In Buddhism] "The more focus you give towards others, the less concerned you are about your own problems and suffering, because your attention is on something else — and your own suffering becomes smaller."

When you blame people who are suffering for their own suffering, then refuse to help them, or go a step farther and cut them off for being 'toxic' then you aren't following a true spiritual path. You are coopting belief systems that you don't truly understand and using them to justify morally questionable behavior.

Of course, it is ok to want positivity in your life. Everyone not just wants, but needs, that. But we can't let our desire for happiness override the need for altruism, kindness and compassion.

Churches and organized religions can become toxic.

New-Age spirituality can become toxic.

This happens when people use religion to justify the persecution of others, and to maintain a social order and power structure that lifts some people above others. Most faiths teach us to help widows, orphans, the sick and the poor. It is our job as human beings with conscience to help those who are suffering.

When we turn a blind eye to suffering, or discount it as being someone's own fault, then you aren't practicing true spirituality. Plain and simple.

Kindness matters. Love matters. Compassion matters.

Especially when you consider yourself to be a spiritual person. If you want to be a truly spiritual person, then practicing kindness and compassion towards others should be incorporated as a part of your belief system.


bottom of page