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The problem of positivity

While the pandemic rages on and anxious thoughts pervade our days, there are quiet moments of joy as well. Why, then, do we feel guilty about expressing positive emotions?

Want to share a cat video? Go ahead and do it.
Want to share a cat video? Go ahead and do it. (Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times)

Manish Bhatt has been more conscious about the content he shares on his social media accounts in the past few months, since the pandemic’s second wave began to tear through the country. “I am being more selective in what I post, avoiding outright jokes and lighthearted puns, lest it sound insensitive,” says the Delhi-based advertising agency owner. “The tragedies are too close, the sheer number of people crying for help, beds, oxygen, medicines is too large to be able to look away.” Like Bhatt, everyone’s social media feeds and conversations are filled with despair and outrage—pleas for help, information and discussions on the dire situation in the country, and tirades against the administration, those with opposing ideologies, or our own lax attitudes. Amid this, there are occasional glimpses of cheerfulness—a birthday being celebrated; a new art project displayed, a song being sung, or the perennial favourites of funny animal videos. While some levity is needed even in grave situations, many are hesitant to punctuate the outrage, grief, loss or frustration people are feeling with anything that appears callous or disconnected to our urgent reality.

It is natural to feel guilty in experiencing or sharing some joy right now and equally natural to bristle at anything that does not fit one’s own narrative. There is no right way to feel, and most of us are oscillating between various emotions. But what is tolerable positivity and what is unforgivable? A few people share their perspectives, their varied responses showcasing how everyone is triggered differently. But most agree that some levity, which does not attempt to force emotions, or deflect from the grim reality and difficult conversations, is not resented, and often welcomed as a brief respite.

Conscious content

For many, it is currently difficult to focus on anything beyond information, opinion or analysis of the situation and help with requests for assistance. Loveleen Multani, a tourism professional in Bangalore, has consciously stayed away from voicing her opinions on social media in the past. “But now, I am at a point in my rage where I need to speak out,” she says. It does bother her slightly that not everyone who echoes her anger or frustration is expressing themselves, but she understands that there are various reasons for this and it cannot be forced. Though she occasionally shares a few humourous posts, she is avoiding personal content that appears callous. “I try to help various people through the day. I don’t want to put up a photograph enjoying a drink or a nice meal, because the people I’m trying to help don’t get to take that break. I choose not to post this kind of content right now, but I won’t judge someone else if they did.”

Jonathan Marques, an independent financial analyst in Goa, is focused on sharing informative and helpful posts, but has been criticized for some of the content. “I have received some backlash on some posts that were seen as insensitive, like funeral pyres burning. I realised I should at least include a trigger warning. I do continue including the usual ‘happy-posts’ and news item in-between.”

Bhatt attempts to lighten things up occasionally in conversations, but ensures that he does not appear preachy or insensitive in the process. “This, I feel, makes the exercise a part of taking care of each other, with some humour or music, or some such lighthearted distraction. I try to balance it by asking people how they are doing and if I can help in any way. That’s my coping mechanism.”

For some, social media is a break from the deluge of bad news. “I don’t feel you should turn to social media for the news.” said Geeta Khandelwal, a marketing and analytics professional from Singapore. “I don’t judge people for sharing lighter or humorous content. I welcome the break.” But being away from friends and family in India has kept her focused on using her social media for information and to amplify requests for assistance. “I feel some guilt as I am physically removed from the situation at home,” says Khandelwal, describing her hesitation to even share photographs from a walk she took recently, conscious of the lockdown and grim situation in India.

For Multani, context is important. “When I see people who are helping others and also posting about silly things or humorous content, I feel it’s ok.” But it bothers her when people with a large reach do not appear to be doing anything impactful through their platform. Marques agrees. “I think it’s strange when influencers do not seem to have even one post that could be helpful in this current pandemic, where people could really benefit from their network.”

Khandelwal is less bothered about content on personal accounts or influencers like film stars or bloggers. “But what policy makers share is important and has repercussions for the entire country. If they deflect from the seriousness of the situation, that makes me angry,” she says.

How to avoid toxic positivity

Forcing others to be positive is what many find intolerable. “I am ok with people sharing harmless jokes or songs or chronicling how they spend their time. I am vehemently against people telling others to be positive and suppress facts, or not seek help on social media.” said Bhatt. “You cannot, must not preach to others to be positive at this time. It’s criminal, and it’s cruel.” To many, this strain of toxic positivity is offensive and harmful, not allowing them to feel, express, question or learn from difficult experiences and emotions. “Positivity is effective for sure, but not when it arises out of denial of realities,” says Marques, who feels both ends of the spectrum, constant negativity or positivity, are toxic.

Guilt is understandable, so is positivity

For those who are relatively unscathed, feeling survivor’s guilt is natural when seeing others who are suffering more. But it is also alright to experience and celebrate some joy at a time like this. Everyone needs a break and a coping mechanism right now. For Multani that includes feeling more in control by reading and keeping herself informed; cleaning mindfully; playing music or cooking with her daughter. Marques distracts himself with gardening, music, humorous videos and spending time with the neighbourhood pets. “There’s so much bad news all around, it is alright to feel horrible right now. But I also don’t feel bad to step away from social media for a bit, or for indulging myself in doing the things that I like. All the uncertainty around makes me enjoy these moments more than ever.”

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