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Positivity can be toxic. Depressive realism might make you happier

There is a view that reality is actually terrifying, and depression is an appropriate reaction to it, says Ukrainian philosopher Julie Reshe

Growing up in Ireland typically meant exposure to a “no notions” form of positive psychology: “Quit your moaning”, “Think of the starving children in Africa” and “Count your blessings”. Such instructions were designed to guard against self-pity and imbue a restrained form of optimism.

Nowadays, we go in for more gung-ho, American-style positivity: motivational exercises, medicating against sadness and most recently “manifesting”. If you haven’t heard, the latter involves staring at a mirror while telling yourself how your dreams will come true (and, if they don’t, the implication is you’re not manifesting hard enough).

A cultural obsession with happiness has led some psychologists to warn against “toxic positivity”. They argue the very reason we’re all so anxious is because we focus on unattainable goals. Moreover, there’s something particularly capitalistic about putting an onus on individuals to be chirpy while ignoring societal causes of distress.

To bring some balance to our thinking, a philosopher from eastern Europe invites us on to the psychologist’s couch for some “negatively oriented psychoanalysis”.


Julie Reshe, a Ukrainian academic and outspoken critic of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, was lecturing at a university in Siberia before war brought her to Ireland as a refugee with her daughter. She has just published a book exploring the value of “depressive realism”. It is, she writes, “a negative alternative to the positive orientation of popular psychology and current therapeutic culture. Unlike them, it is not striving to save anyone or improve anything.”

Currently a visiting faculty member at both UCC and UCD, the author of Negative Psychoanalysis for the Living Dead rejects the idea of pessimism as a cure. However, she suggests toxic positivity may explain not just your current stress levels but also global traumas like the climate crisis (about which we are weirdly sanguine) and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Reshe explains further:

Is positive thinking always delusionary?

“Modern western society has been repeatedly criticised for its toxic positivity. People with a negative outlook who cannot or do not wish to hide their internal sufferings often feel misunderstood, alienated and unwelcomed.

“In a society of toxic positivity, positive thinking is considered adequate, while depressive thinking is seen as distorting reality, casting it in an overly negative light. Conventional psychotherapy, once it identifies depressive thinking, would normally seek to adjust it into a more positive version. We ourselves, when plagued by negative feelings, tend to think something is wrong with us, and hope that it is unnatural for a person to feel this way.

“On the other hand, the perspective of philosophical pessimism and depressive realism, to which I partly adhere, offers an almost opposing view: that reality is actually terrifying, and depression is an appropriate reaction to it.”

You say Russia is a good candidate for negative psychoanalysis. Why so?

“It might be suggested that both Putinism and nazism are overly optimistic. I realise this is a controversial assertion as ... we tend to assume that their malevolence stems from an obsession with causing death and destruction. Todd McGowan, a contemporary psychoanalytic thinker, offers a counterintuitive perspective ... He argues that the Nazi’s deadly endeavours revealed a deeper conviction: life could be purged of its negative aspects.

“Similarly, in her critique of today’s overly positive culture, existential therapist Emmy van Deurzen notes that, contrary to how we remember it, nazism originated as an enthusiastic ideology. Its goal was to cultivate a strictly regulated society, removing all negative elements to let the positive ones flourish.

“In a comparable vein, Putinism can also be perceived as excessively positive. From Putin’s Russia’s perspective, it believes it is acting with goodwill by establishing a ‘correct’ version of the world: one devoid of what it deems the wrong kind of people – Ukrainians – and the wrong kind of country, Ukraine. This belief is a profound illusion that serves to legitimise the extensive harm caused by Putinism.

“Thus, both nazism and Putinism could greatly benefit from a heightened susceptibility to disillusionment and depressive self-reflection. There’s a temptation to persist in denial about one’s malicious deeds, justifying them with noble intentions. Challenging these beliefs leads to self-doubts, depression and possibly repentance.”

How would you respond to the accusation that you’re breaking your own rule of “negative practice” by offering a kind of help? Yours might be described as a cheerless therapy laced with “tough love” but a therapy nonetheless

“When discussing therapy, the etymology of the word encompasses both cure and care. I am not inclined towards the notion of therapy as a cure. I lean towards the psychoanalytic and existential theories that acknowledge the profound flaws at the core of our existence, making an ultimate cure unattainable. After all, any curative measure is merely palliative, as we are all, inevitably, headed towards our end.

“From this perspective, therapy aimed at a cure inherently implies a positive bias, suggesting the possibility of an ultimate salvation ... Conversely, care is far less escapist and hopeful. It allows more room to acknowledge the profound tragedy inherent in every human life and existence as a whole.

“In my view, to genuinely care for and understand another is to acknowledge the tragic essence of their being – the insoluble dilemmas they face, the unrecompensed losses they endure, their impossibility to go on. This depth of understanding is hindered when our goal is to ‘fix’ them or to rush towards a cure.”