How “motivating” is motivational content really?

Motivational content on social media: has it lost its power?

Being constantly bombarded with messages of positivity telling you ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘good vibes only’ can take its toll, argues one writer. 

I’ll let you into a secret; every time someone posts a motivational quote on Facebook, a fairy dies. Two if the font looks suspiciously like comic sans, three if it’s positioned next to a sunrise. At this point, I’ll caveat all of this by telling you I’m not immune to looking on the bright side. I believe in the good in people, live in the eternal hope that I’ll win the lottery and have a list pinned to the fridge of all the goals I’m currently manifesting

Yet despite all of this, our fixation to find a positive spin on absolutely everything – also known as toxic positivity – is really starting to grate.

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I know being inundated with clichéd self-help messages isn’t anything new. I grew up in the 90s, where the happiness of each household was gauged by whether a ‘live, laugh, love’ sign was hanging in the hall. But, perhaps thanks to the intrusiveness of social media or the intensity of what we’ve all experienced over the past 18 months, being constantly bombarded with messages of positivity telling you ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘good vibes only’ just feels incredibly distasteful right now. 

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Really, it should be the opposite. Taking the lemons and turning them into lemonade should taste sweet right?

On the surface, a little self-help quote, set to motivate us into action or help change our mindset into a positive one, seems harmless enough. A pep talk in five fluffy words. But here’s the thing: without the nuance of circumstance, so much of this advice feeds into a sentiment implying that responsibility for our happiness is solely down to us. Remember, change your thoughts and you can change your world. Or, how about, your destiny is in your hands. 

So we manifest, work super hard, throw buckets of positive thoughts into the universe and when we still can’t achieve our perfect fairytale, we blame ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. It’s no wonder studies show that grasping onto a positive mindset and forcing happy feelings actually has the opposite effect: fuelling feelings of guilt, insecurity and distress.

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Don’t get me wrong, the ability to do things that positively impact our mood is, to a certain extent, within our control. I know eating well, exercising regularly and seeing friends is good for me. Downing a bottle of wine while watching Beaches probably isn’t. 

But like most things in life, it’s often more complicated than a simple choice between happy or sad, good or bad. Such black and white thinking encourages us to see the world in simplistic extremes, and not only is it exhausting, but it’s dangerous too. We fixate on the highs and lows, and ride the intensity of emotions which go with them, overlooking just how much happiness can be found in the just OK, everyday moments too. 

For me at least, the best motivational content can be is fluffy clickbait. But at its worst, it’s unhelpful, damaging and feeds into wider issues about how far we still have to go, not only when talking about mental health, but also what characteristics we champion in society. We’re fed stories on how fortune favours the brave or how we should fake it until we make it, making us believe success is built on being the bravest, the most confident; failure comes from showing your authenticity and letting your guard down. 

We’ve seen this recently in the treatment of gymnast Simone Biles who pulled out of Olympics all-around gymnastics final to prioritise her mental health. In among the outpouring of support on social media, there was also a dark and dominant narrative present, labelling her weak to withdraw. In the same space where we actively encourage notions of ‘it’s OK not to be OK’, when it boils down to it, is it really?

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Britney Spears recently posted on Instagram about how she presented a life of perfection to the outside world because “as people we all want a fairy story.” Apologising for pretending to be OK, she went on to explain: “I did it because I was ashamed to admit I wasn’t.” How radical would it be to normalise that fairytales don’t really exist? To acknowledge that bad things happen and champion the authenticity that comes from being vulnerable when they do. To show the power in admitting you’re scared and feeling comfortable to ask for support. 

Perhaps only when we can acknowledge that unadulterated positivity isn’t something to aim for, then can we learn how to really support people further than just a tokenism post.

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