When “Happy” Doesn’t Cut It

You’ll experience a range of feelings on your career journey.
By Nadine Fonseca
a man holding a smiling face in front of his head

Can you think of a time when things weren’t going the way you’d hoped, and someone told you to “look on the bright side”? Or that “it could always be worse”? Or maybe just told you to “think positive”? How much did their advice really help? 

The reality is that your career adventure will rarely go exactly as you’d hoped. Some things will turn out wildly better. Some will leave you frustrated and disappointed. And some will be fine but a bit different from what you expected. While you might hear that challenges and obstacles can build character and develop resilience—which might be true—you won’t always be happy about it. And you don’t have to be.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is when a person is expected to be happy about everything, all the time—to contort valid negative emotions into warm, fuzzy feelings or at least fake smiles. 

There are many problems with toxic positivity. The worst? It makes people unwilling to speak up about their problems or concerns. They might fear being seen as negative. This forces them to be dishonest about how they’re feeling. 

If you’re feeling a negative emotion, whether it’s about your career or another aspect of your life, people might tell you to feel differently (“think positive!”). Instead, they should be practicing empathy and honest communication. They should be allowing you to feel that negative emotion—because it’s okay to not be happy about every twist and turn in the road. 

How can you battle toxic positivity?

Here are three tips for coping when someone isn’t taking your feelings and concerns seriously.

  • Know your feelings are valid. You don’t have to have to feel the same as someone else does. Both of your feelings can be reasonable. Imagine two friends are cast as understudies in the school play. One might be devastated not to have landed a lead role. The other might be thrilled to be involved at all. Both of these feelings are valid. We all experience and process things differently.

  • Share through discomfort. Take the time to share your real emotions, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. Did you get assigned a school elective that wasn’t your first choice? It’s okay to feel disappointed, and to share that feeling. When talking to a parent or guidance counselor, you might be tempted to pretend you’re happy so the uncomfortable situation will just go away. But honesty is your best tool for finding a solution and advancing toward your goals.

  • Consider your options. After validating and sharing your feelings, look at the situation practically. Toxic positivity will tell you to accept it and be happy. But is there another option? Is there a trusted adult who can listen and guide you? Is there a way to overcome this obstacle and keep moving in the direction of your dreams? 

You’ll experience successes and failures on your career path. Keep in mind that it’s completely normal to feel a range of emotions about each of them—even within a single day! And remember that experiencing failure doesn’t make you a failure. It’s a built-in part of the learning experience. You won’t be the first, or the last, person to feel discouraged and determined at the same time.