Toxic Positivity in the Context of Lacanian Psychoanalysis

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Interview with Colin Wright, Associate Professor in Critical Theory, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham



On an everyday level, I think everyone encounters forms of toxic positivity.

Everyone, at least once, has been at a party, felt sad or melancholic and been

identified as a “foreign organism” by this whole system of the fun-loving crowd,

and then been flooded with passive-aggressive demands to “cheer up”, to

“enjoy”, to “stop being grumpy” - which is to say negative or unhappy. Or maybe

they have come across a confusing job application stating something like “we are

looking for happy people”; or found they could not talk to friends or family

members about deeply harrowing experiences or thoughts without hearing how

the “glass is always half full,” when in reality, for them, the “glass” felt completely

empty. In short, I think most people can relate to the fact that negativity is not

easily or “healthily” tolerated within a capitalistic culture.


I spoke with Colin Wright, Associate Professor in Critical Theory (Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham) who is currently working on the book with a title Toxic Positivity: A Lacanian

Critique of Happiness and Wellbeing to find out more on the subject of toxic positivity in the context of Lacanian psychoanalysis.



NL: First of all, could you please define “toxic positivity” and speak about your

upcoming book with the very interesting title Toxic Positivity: A Lacanian

Critique of Happiness and Wellbeing. Why have you been interested in

researching this concept (toxic positivity) in particular, and why in the context

of Lacanian psychoanalysis? 


CW: Well, I should be honest from the outset and say that I stole ‘toxic positivity’! I took it

from the queer theorist Jack Halberstam, who uses the term in his book The Queer Art

of Failure. The main argument there is that ‘success’, and all the positivity that is meant

to come with it, is in fact often violently normative and limiting. Dominant ideas of

‘success’ inherently exclude more marginal ‘queer’ forms of subjectivity and practice.

One of the toxic effects of this kind of positivity then is that it prohibits the bad feelings –

anxiety, sadness, anger etc. – which, in such a sunny and upbeat society, are bound to

accompany the alternative lifestyles and forms of desire often deemed ‘failures’ by wider

society. Halberstam is interested in recovering the transformative potential of these

negative affects (Sarah Ahmed has made a related argument about the politics of the

‘feminist killjoy’), and I share that interest.


My own project is to extend this idea of ‘toxic positivity’ into the fields of happiness and

wellbeing, and the innumerable injunctions we are subjected to nowadays to ‘always

look on the bright side’. I would argue that this new superegoic happiness is toxic in at

least three ways.


Firstly, it is toxic for the whole philosophical and Enlightenment project of critique, since

critique implies the negative. Marx took from Hegel, for example, the idea of the ‘labour

of the negative’ as the motor of dialectical change: conflict or contradiction is what stops

things becoming stagnant. And yet today, the negative is pathologized as a “cognitive

bias” that one should simply get rid of through Mindfulness, CBT, or Neuro Linguistic

Programming. This is toxic for the political function of critique as well, because sources

of unhappiness are presented not as a matter of social injustice out there in an unequal

world, but as an internal matter of individual responsibility for one’s own attainment of

satisfaction and wellbeing. This really nullifies some of the more revolutionary

deployments of the idea of happiness and its absence, for example in the French and

even American Revolutions, which turned the demand for happiness into a rallying cry

for social not just individual transformation (though the American Revolution quickly

shifted from a civic notion of happiness to one giving primacy to the private pursuit of

property and wealth).


Secondly, I would argue that this positivity is toxic in the very real sense of being bad for

our health. The relentless emphasis on measuring and enhancing our wellbeing is

making many of us ill! As a psychoanalyst, I definitely encounter people who are made

to feel worse by their inability to achieve or maintain this ideal of happiness and

wellbeing. It’s difficult to understand one’s own suffering when the broader consumer

culture promises endless modes of intense pleasure and fulfilment, or when social media

presents carefully curated images of everyone else’s apparently perfect lives. The

complication is that we all know people perform an idealised life on Facebook which

probably bears no relation to their lived reality, and yet, affectively, we behave as if this

knowledge makes no difference to us: we feel as if everyone but us is able to enjoy life

in a direct and uncomplicated way.


Thirdly, I am interested in linking toxicity to toxicology and thus to ecology, since the

happiness of consumer capitalism is clearly leading to unsustainable environmental

damage. Here, my inspiration is Félix Guattari’s short but rich text, The Three Ecologies,

in which he argues for a much more integrated way of looking at the overlaps between

the mental, the social, and the environmental planes. In my book, I am trying to work my

way towards some kind of antidote to the toxicity of toxic positivity, and this surely has to

involve a different conception of a more-than-human ecological happiness which

encompasses the wellbeing of the planet in its very finitude and fragility?

As to why Lacanian psychoanalysis, there is a very simplistic answer to that, which is

that I am a practicing Lacanian analyst and see most things through this lens! But

beyond this personal point, whilst some critiques of happiness studies and positive

psychology have now appeared (see people like Mike Davies, Sam Binkley, Ashley

Frawley etc.), it is striking that psychoanalysis of any stripe is almost completely absent

from or even dismissed by them. I think this is because psychoanalysis is conflated

much too quickly with psychotherapy and even psychology, whereas it is almost

diametrically opposed to them. This is a real omission because psychoanalysis already

has quite a sophisticated theory of happiness and its opposite, for example in Freud’s

Civilization and its Discontents. But also because the clinical practice of psychoanalysis

necessarily works carefully with these same tensions between socially provided images

of fulfilment (though advertising and film and television for example) and the very

different, indeed singular, fantasies and desires of particular subjects. Analysts can’t

ignore ideals of happiness but we also can’t sign up to them.


I would argue that this positivity is toxic in the very real sense of being bad for our health. The relentless emphasis on measuring and enhancing our wellbeing is making many of us ill! As a psychoanalyst, I definitely encounter people who are made to feel worse by their inability to achieve or maintain this ideal of happiness and wellbeing. It’s difficult to understand one’s own suffering when the broader consumer culture promises endless modes of intense pleasure and fulfilment, or when social media presents carefully curated images of everyone else’s apparently perfect lives.

Lacan, moreover, saw these problems with happiness becoming a master signifier very

early, in the late 1950s and 1960s. In his seventh seminar on The Ethics of

Psychoanalysis, for example, he called happiness a “bourgeois ideology” and advised

that analysts should have nothing whatsoever to do with it. He was also very dubious

about the emphasis in other forms of psychotherapy on the category of affect, as if

‘feelings’, especially supposedly pleasant ones, could provide a clinical compass for

analytical work. I find this a very useful corrective today when affective investments in

modes of intimacy have been turned into what Eva Illouz has called “emotional

capitalism”. Lacanian psychoanalysis focuses more on (sometimes uncomfortable, often

inconvenient) subjective truths than on apparently ‘good’ or pleasant feelings. Despite

appearances, the latter often alienate us yet further within the normative demands of the

Other. As analysts then we definitely do not turn suffering into a virtue (as in aspects of

Christianity) or into a melancholic mode of aesthetic sensibility (as in aspects of

Romanticism): we are still in the business of alleviating suffering rather than celebrating

it or pretending it is heroic! But equally, as analysts we cannot orient an analysis around

the promise of happiness or support our patients in their ‘constitutional right’ to pursue it.

For structural reasons, analysis is ultimately subversive of these norms around

happiness and wellbeing.


NL: I was not surprised to learn that the Self-Improvement Industry is estimated

to grow to $13.2 billion by 2022. In his recently published book McMindfulness,

Ronald Purser explains “how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality”

and the product of the “narcissistic individualism of the wellness industry”. He

argues that “mindfulness is so market-friendly because it appeals to this highly

individualistic, entrepreneurial ethos. It’s all about ‘me’ and self-improvement. It’s

thriving in a culture of narcissism. The focus is firmly on delivering a more happy

self. This is a real kind of social myopia: it squarely places the responsibility for

being ‘happy’ within the individual themselves, rather than taking into account all

the systemic, structural aspects of society that are causing the cultural malaise

that has so many people flocking to the wellness industry for answers.” I came

across an article reviewing Pursers’ book with the title “Why Corporations Want

You to Shut Up and Meditate,” which, in my opinion, perfectly captures the

problem with the self-improvement industry. 


So, could you please speak about this constant pressure and encouragement to

focus solely on our own selves? To look for the answers, problems, causes, and

solutions only within - and never without?  And also, the constant pressure to

enjoy?


CW: I would completely agree with Purser that the kind of ‘self’ encouraged by the self-

help industry is not just any old version of selfhood, but specifically the one imposed by

neoliberalism. In contrast to more traditional or collectivist cultures, the neoliberal self is

seen as a kind of isolated economic unit, something that must constantly be invested in

with the hope of future returns that will add value. Everything is calculated to make a

profit, and indeed we see frequent references to notions such as psychological or

emotional ‘capital’. In his lectures on biopolitics, Foucault captured this nicely with the

idea of the ‘entrepreneur of the self’ which involves subjecting all values, behaviours and

decisions to the economic rationality of cost-benefit analyses, even in the realms of love

and intimacy (witness the proliferation not just of ‘pre-nups’ but of ‘pre-pre-nups’). But

unlike the Homo Economicus of classical liberalism who was ascribed the power of

rational decision, the neoliberal subject is essentially completely empty and malleable,

making it absolutely identical with this endless task of its own adaptive self-fashioning.

Hence the constant pressure you mention to focus on ourselves, to literally work on

ourselves and to be the result of our self-work. On the one hand, this is presented as the

essence of autonomy and freedom (‘be all you can be’, as the slogan goes), but on the

other, it implies that you would be nothing without this relentless work. As well as

emptying the self, the injunction to maximise happiness and wellbeing – to count and

accumulate them - is simultaneously extremely individualising and responsibilising. It is

all down to you. If you fail, it can only be your own fault. You must be lazy or lack ‘grit’.

And as you suggest, reifying this version of selfhood has the effect of completely erasing

the structural aspects of broader social systems that play an enormous role in forming

the self in the first place, even if individualism encourages us to deny our indebtedness

to the social Other that preceded us. From a psychoanalytic point of view, narcissism

can be defined by the idea that the self does not need, let alone proceed from, the

Other. Such is the illusion characteristic of the ego. But the flipside of this is serious

isolation for the individual and a dissolution of the social bond into something like

Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’. There is a by no means accidental homology

between the emergence of this extreme responsibilisation of the narcissistic ego, and

the neoliberal project of dismantling the welfare state - a somewhat paternal Other that

was once willing to be in some way socially responsible.


Neoliberalism sees to it that the Other’s place is taken by the market, and this starts to

answer your other question about where the constant pressure to enjoy comes from.

Lacan, as you probably know, has a particular word for enjoyment which is often left

untranslated because it doesn’t have a precise English equivalent. That word is

jouissance, and it is helpful because it combines enjoyment with a kind of uncomfortable

intensity or too-muchness, so that jouissance is somewhere between pleasure and pain,

or the peculiar pain pleasure can lead us towards. If we keep that in mind, then the fact

that the market enjoins us to enjoy constantly, relentlessly, and always more rather than

less, can be appreciated as both pleasurable and painful, painful because pleasurable.

Jacques-Alain Miller has been particularly clear about this: where once, in Freud’s day,

the superego was largely prohibitive and repression was the dominant psychic

mechanism, today the superego takes the form of this injunction to enjoy without cease

and without limit. It follows that subjects are exposed to the drive, including its deathly

aspect, without much protection from desire or fantasy. These two things work in tandem

then: not only must you constantly work on yourself, but you must enjoy it; equally, this

enjoyment is what entangles us in repetitive practices we also suffer from.

It is as if the 20 th century complaint was ‘I can’t’, whereas in the 21 st it has become ‘I can’t

not’!


NL: As already mentioned, we could observe manifestations of toxic positivity

literally everywhere around us but when this notion also leaks into the sciences, it

becomes not just upsetting or toxic, but in my opinion, unspeakably harmful and

damaging.


For me personally, a most shocking manifestation of science poisoned by

ideology, was when I heard a very respected psychiatrist giving a lecture, where

she mentioned that “today, the opinion of many psychiatrists became similar to

the religious view, that ungratefulness causes depression, i.e. unhappiness.