5:00 p.m. – I’m getting ready to go to a family dinner. I feel the stress starting to mount. I can already imagine the questions about my career, love life, and finances, but no one will take an interest in how I really feel.
6:00 p.m. – On the metro, I scroll through social media to pass the time. Photos of happy couples, smiling families and decorated homes with the smell of cookies emanating from the images go by.
Is it me, or does everyone seem to have found perfect happiness? They’re lucky; why can’t I be happy like them and enjoy the holidays?
6:40 p.m. – I am at the door. I take a few seconds to take a deep breath; I force a little smile and ring the bell…
The holidays are hard for many of us. While it is a time of celebration for many, it is a time of intense social pressure for others. The pressure to buy gifts, dress up, spend time with people can create a great deal of stress. It is also a time of year that upsets routines. Our diet changes suddenly, and our sleep cycle is disrupted. These factors alone can have a major impact on mental health, so what about the pressure to seem happy at all costs?
We offer a few avenues for reflection and strategies to better deal with difficult emotions during the holidays.
The social pressure to seem happy relates to the broader phenomenon of toxic positivity. This is the principle that we should always have a positive attitude despite life’s hurdles. A common example of toxic positivity is the popular belief that happiness is a choice and that if you choose to see the world in a positive light, your experience changes.
In the past few years in particular, we have seen plenty of this type of message advocating a positive attitude. North American society is fuelled by the idea of productivity, and mental health has become another area in which we are supposed to persevere and excel. The new ideology around working on oneself, better known as self-care, conveys the idea that if we work hard enough on ourselves, we will achieve happiness. But this suggests that if we don’t succeed, it is because of a lack of personal will.
This perception of happiness as something that can be acquired through hard work can have a significant impact on mental health because it suggests that 1) experiencing negative emotions is harmful to mental health and 2) happiness is the result of individual will, overlooking social determinants of mental health.
Recognizing, understanding and accepting negative emotions
Unlike what toxic positivity suggests, positive mental health requires recognizing and experiencing all emotions, both negative and positive. Recognizing, understanding and accepting negative emotions are essential steps toward good mental health. Many of us struggle during the holidays precisely because there is tremendous pressure to perform happiness, which indirectly invalidates “negative” emotions such as sadness or disappointment, which we can also feel during this period.
Plus, experiencing “negative” emotions doesn’t negate the possibility of simultaneously experiencing positive emotions. We all experience a range of emotions, and they make up the beauty of our emotional landscape.
The happiness requirement: an obstacle to care
That said, recognizing that we are experiencing uncomfortable emotions and feeling that we can talk about them with those around us is a necessary step in asking for help. Evidence shows that people who feel their emotions are being invalidated by those around them are less likely to seek professional help in a crisis.
The happiness requirement can also have a significant impact on improving living conditions and access to health care. Access to housing, working conditions, and food safety, for example, are important risk and protective factors for mental health that are much more within the control of governments than individuals. Ignoring the social dimension of mental health can have major consequences on mental health, because it excuses governments from creating better living conditions for those it governs.
Happiness at all costs can cost us our mental health when it is presented as the only road to well-being. It may be perceived as an invalidation of negative emotions and can be a major obstacle to asking for help or access to care.
During the holidays, please be kind to yourselves, listen to your emotions and take care of those around you the best you can.
 Labranche, Andrée-Ann (2021). “‘Positivité toxique’: voici pourquoi il est important de vivre ses émotions négatives,” La Conversation, August 5, 2021, https://theconversation.com/positivite-toxique-voici-pourquoi-il-est-important-de-vivre-ses-emotions-negatives-165225
 Gill, R., & Orgad, S. (2021). Get Unstuck! Pandemic Positivity Imperatives and Self-care for Women. Cultural Politics.
 Government of Canada. (2018). Promoting positive mental health. Accessed at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/promoting-positive-mental-health.html
 Government of Canada (2019). Protective and risk factors for mental health. Accessed at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/protective-risk-factors-mental-health.html