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Toxic Positivity & Capitalism: Is interruption possible in modern society?

When approaching the concept of ‘remediation,’ our group found ourselves drawn to a theme more personally relevant to us in our generation. In the hindsight offered by this reflection, I found that the phenomenon we had resigned ourselves to representing and counteracting through this project was so conceptually modern, I struggled to find sources that could help define and distinguish my arguments. The topic: toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity disguises itself as optimism and reassurance, but lacks the depth and compassion required to properly validate the feelings of the recipient. Psychotherapist Aimee Hudson and Psychologist Kat Wyeth define the subject as a “tendency to react to other people's struggles and suffering with reductive statements of positivity.” It is an “overgeneralisation of positivity across all circumstances” that “prevents us from acknowledging how we are actually feeling,” and instead creates a “black and white thinking towards emotions” (Wyeth and Hudson, 2022). Although there are usually good intentions behind the behaviour, it tends to have adverse effects that fail to adequately address the root of the problems.

Presentation of our idea to our peers and tutors faced us with the question, “what do we want our audience to do?” Despite knowing generally that what we hoped people would do was unsubscribe from toxic positivity, we were still yet to work out the matter of how. It was not until our lecture on “Realism and Its Interruption” that we were able to explore the concept of disrupting reality.

The thing about living in a culture which promotes this misguided attitude is that there is always the nagging feeling that something is still not quite right; a lingering unresolved negative emotion pushed down by the shallow inspirational quotes, left in the shadows casted by “the bright side.” In becoming the embodiment of toxic positivity, we hoped the “positive” messages repeated in our project would be so saturated, they would spur this negative feeling to grow until it became too irritating, uncomfortable, and overwhelming to ignore the problem. To achieve this, our film began as an unassuming, feel-good mental health and wellbeing PSA to promote positive thinking– favouring pastel colours and old Hollywood film aesthetics to lull the viewer into a false sense of security and comfort. Throughout the duration of our installation, more screens, audio layers, eerie visuals, glitches and distortion were added to increase the feeling of uneasiness. In our lecture, the “moment of interruption” was introduced through the scene in The Truman Show, when Truman Burbank realises his life is a reality TV show and makes the decision to escape (The Truman Show - At World's End, 2016). To my understanding, this concept of interruption is simply the moment in which one is made aware of the reality they are living in. The development of technology and ideology in our modern society has granted us access to more knowledge than ever before. However, the vast availability of information and the fact that corporations have the same capacity for awareness poses the question – is interruption possible in modern society? Is it possible to generate enough of a rift in our passive acceptance of our present reality that we might experience a real life peripeteia?

To answer this, we must first define the reality we mean to interrupt or, in other words, the problem to raise awareness about. This is where I sought out to contextualise toxic positivity and track it back to its fundamentals. Why did we subscribe to toxic positivity in the first place? Since the messages toxic positivity spreads are not necessarily inherently bad, and some of the advice might be genuinely helpful in the correct circumstances, the reason lies in its attempts to advertise happiness, and where it falls short of the mark can be identified in other theories of happiness. In response to psychology focusing more on negative aspects of human nature and how to cure them (the “disease” model), President of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman introduced the field of positive psychology in 1998. “Positive psychology calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed'' (Peterson and Park, 2003). Traits of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualised individual— considered to be a person who has reached their full potential— includes the acceptance of one’s own flaws, as well as their best traits (Perera, 2020). The common theme is the acknowledgement of human duality and the range of emotions that are part of the human experience.

This is particularly prevalent across social media as the culture it has cultivated is one in which people tend to filter their lives to only show the “best” parts. As American comedian Bo Burnham describes it, “[social media] is just the market's answer to a generation that demanded to perform.” This habit of social performance has translated into an understanding of happiness that is as one-dimensional as the digital personas we curate on our social media profiles (Burnham, 2016). Similarly, content creator Felix Kjellberg, known online as PewDiePie, made a video titled, Forced Positivity on Youtube, in which he addressed the issue of vloggers and influencers feeling the need to project an unnaturally, unwavering “positive” attitude in order for people to enjoy their content (PewDiePie, 2017). As a result, one of the reasons people uphold toxic positivity is out of desire for likeability. Unfortunately, this behaviour ends up isolating people more than fostering genuine connection. People who look up to these social media influencers watch them promote toxic positivity and buy into it. Thus, perpetuating a cycle that creates a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation: no one speaks about their true feelings for fear of judgement or rejection. Furthermore, the concept of happiness and peak human performance has been hijacked by consumer culture and defined by superficial values. A Coca-Cola advert invites you to “Open happiness” alongside an image of a Coke bottle, while Trident offers up “a Little Piece of Happy” in the form of a piece of their gum. Neither “refer to the actual product each is selling” but rather, suggest that their product is synonymous with happiness (Communication Theory, 2014). They reduce happiness to something more temporal than sustainable, leading the pursuit of happiness down a potentially hedonistic path that aligns with the capitalist agenda.

Therefore, the reality we intend to interrupt is one in which we think happiness and satisfaction with life is possible without acknowledging and accepting the full spectrum of human emotion.

Which brings us back to the question. Is there any way to disrupt this commonly accepted way of thinking and living? It is difficult to say for sure when it does not appear to be the case among the masses yet. However, it is important to consider how easily capitalism tends to appropriate any revolutionary ideology the new generation begins to rally behind. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays was the first to take his uncle’s “ideas about human beings and used them to manipulate the masses.” He showed American corporations how to link “mass-produced goods to [people’s] unconscious desires” by using the Suffragette Movement to sell cigarettes to women. He staged an event in which debutantes would dramatically light cigarettes on his signal and join the Easter Day parade. He then told the press he had heard “a group of suffragettes were preparing to protest by lighting up what they called torches of freedom” so that the moment would be captured by photographers. With this, cigarettes effectively became a symbol of female empowerment (Curtis, 2002). In today’s society, corporations still use political protests to promote their products. Youtuber HBomberGuy made a video titled WOKE BRANDS, in which he addressed this issue and posed the question, “Can a product be truly progressive?” He remarked that companies now attempt to “buy your allegiance by saying something vaguely progressive” but also benefit from the free marketing that results from backlash in the form of trending Twitter hashtags. One example he gave was the #BurnYourNikes trend that followed a Nike ad campaign featuring black athletes, such as Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee in protest of racism and police brutality. The backlash backfired as Nike’s value went up by 6 billion dollars. (HBomberGuy, 2019). By connecting their product to a prevalent social or political message, companies can place themselves at the centre of discussion, benefitting from either side of the debate. The situation can be likened to the analogy of the “close door” button in most elevators and how “It is a totally disfunctional placebo placed there just to give the individuals the impression that they are somehow participating” (Žižek, 2001). As John Berger put it, “capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible” (Berger, 2008). The dominating reality is that capitalism always seems to catch up with that which attempts to oppose it and the meaning becomes lost in the consumerist sea. “Once we could have fun denouncing the dark, solid reality concealed behind the brilliance of appearances. But today there is allegedly no longer any solid reality to counter-pose to the reign of appearances, nor any dark reverse side to be opposed to the triumph of consumer society” (Rancière and Elliott, 2009).

Regardless of whether it is escapable, it is also worth considering whether it is even ethical. In a society where the media is saturated with tragic images and depressing news coverage, do people even want to be snapped out of the realities they have become accustomed to? Is there comfort in ignorance? It is arguable that surface level perception without deeper contemplation is preferable to becoming hyper aware of the dark side of reality. Even in the case of our installation, we relied on the audience’s negative feelings of discomfort and anxiety to motivate them to change. However, there is still the possibility that the feelings we attempted to generate may have been overwhelming to the point of only succeeding in pushing viewers towards some other form of escapism, so as to avoid feeling such discomfort again. In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, she argues that “one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting… This seems normal, that is, adaptive. One can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images” (Sontag, 2004). After a while, people may become desensitised, or simply turn a blind eye in defence against negative stimuli– a self-preservation instinct. It is especially easy to do so when these messages are seen mainly on TV and social media, platforms which blend entertainment with reportage. This may be elaborated on through the case of theatre and cinema. Plato argues that due to the reality of spectatorship, theatre “transmits the illness of ignorance.” For context, Rancière claims that “To be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act” (Rancière and Elliott, 2009). Similarly, James Elkins explains “There is also something quietly hypnotic about just looking, something less like hunting and more like dreaming… Just looking is like dreaming, but dreaming fittully, tossing and turning and not knowing quite what's happening" (Žižek, 2001), which aligns itself well with Beaudry’s Apparatus Theory that “suggests movie viewers experience an immobility that makes watching a film akin to dreaming” (Goodro, 2018). Simply presenting images for an audience to view does not necessarily force them to consider their meaning any further.

So is there a solution or is all hope lost? In terms of addressing this issue in media or art, “as long as the performance draws [the spectator] out of their passive attitude and transforms them into active participants in a shared world” it may result in successful interruption. To combat the sensationalisation employed by capitalism, one might take inspiration from Bartleby and his passive resistance in stating “I would prefer not to” (Melville, 1856), a phrase which is “not that a predicate is denied” (Žižek, 2019) but is a polite refusal that is not intense or passionate enough to blatantly incite a polarised response that corporations may exploit. In our final assessment critique in which our classmates experienced our installation, one of the comments we received was about the effect of experiencing it in a large group as opposed to alone. Although we had initially designed it to be viewed in a smaller group or solitary, there was an effectiveness in the fact that the shared experience encouraged connection and discussion rather than increasing feelings of isolation. It may well be that the solution is as simple as creating safe spaces for people to raise awareness and share their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly or, to “unplug” entirely and renounce your role as recipients of media messages.

In summary, yes. Interruption is possible in modern society, in the sense that people can be and may already be aware of the problem within our reality, however, its effectiveness in provoking change of reality is still in question. The answer lies in the willingness of the audience to be interrupted.


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