A cult of positivity on social media marginalizes struggling Trojans

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USC social media is full of students who seem to be making the most of quarantine, from Thornton students performing concerts at home to Marshall students raising money for local businesses. Independently, many students on social media seem to be thriving as they develop new exercise routines, learn new skills, discover new hobbies and constantly find new and innovative ways to make the most out of a difficult situation.

These examples flooding social media exemplify the best of the Trojan spirit, highlighting students’ resilience, ingenuity and creativity; however, the constant influx of one-sided positivity can also make struggling students feel marginalized and further isolated. The USC community should celebrate the resilience of all Trojans by being sensitive to the multitude of current experiences, both good and bad.

Students might feel inclined to categorize themselves as either optimists or pessimists depending on their responses to the chaos and stress of this pandemic, but despite endless BuzzFeed quizzes, these labels are ultimately shallow indicators of complex human personalities and behaviors.

The labels attempt to organize how individual people respond to the same stimuli, but what is inconsequential to one person might be catastrophic to another who has radically different personal reference points and life exposures. As a result, these labels tend to flatten and minimize the complexities of human experiences, disregarding how one’s past shapes oneself.

A study in the British Journal of Social Psychology examined self-categorization as an identity-forming experience and a response to stress. While it might be natural to self-identify and categorize, it is detrimental to enforce these labels onto other people. Some students will invariably handle this crisis better than others. These are students who likely also have the financial security, community and familial support to weather this pandemic relatively unharmed. 

Before students dismiss their friends or classmates as negative or pessimistic in their response to the pandemic, they should consider how their peers’ experiences might differ. There are Trojans who are housing or food insecure. Trojans who have lost their job. Trojans who are at risk of falling ill. Trojans who have lost friends or family members. Trojans who struggle with mental illness exacerbated by the pandemic. Trojans who have returned home to a negative or abusive environment.

Even Trojans lucky enough to have safety and security will still struggle immensely from the mental stress of this pandemic. According to Vox, prolonged loneliness contributes to depression, anxiety and physical health problems. The toll of this pandemic on mental health alone is its own crisis. Students, professors and administrators must be sensitive and compassionate toward one another. 

By minimizing the harsh reality many students face, the USC community unwittingly enforces a cult of positivity. It is wonderful that some students have the chance to thrive under these conditions, but not every student receives the same opportunities. This blind optimism erases their experiences and makes them feel further isolated.

Sharing a negative experience does not make someone a pessimist when the reality itself is truly negative. Students cannot secure a job or cure their depression by simply changing their attitude. Being realistic about their trials and tribulations does not mean a student is simply complaining. Moreover, a January article from The New York Times explains that complaining itself helps people process their emotions and bond with others.

Psychology Today finds a significant difference between blind optimists who subscribe to a cult of positivity and realistic optimists. The former tends to overlook real problems and prevent others from sharing their grief, pain, anger, loneliness and fear by making them feel guilty just for having these negative feelings.

By ignoring negativity, blind optimists can make their small problems even bigger. On the other hand, psychologist Julie Norem describes how so-called pessimists effectively “[transform] anxiety into action” by defensively imagining and then preparing for the worst.

USC students need to meet their friends and classmates where they are. If a friend reaches out and describes how they are struggling with the current situation, just telling them that everything will be OK and not to worry dismisses their experience. Instead, honestly listen to their concerns and anxieties.

In the same vein, throwing out a litany of well-meaning suggestions such as yoga, meditation or podcasts may make you feel helpful, but it might make your friend feel minimized. These can all be good coping strategies, but they won’t work for everyone.

For all the Trojans out there who are struggling and whose experiences do not seem to match up with their classmates’ cheerful and ultra-motivated social media posts, remember that Instagram is not reality. People post finely-curated representations of their lives and often try to cope with their own negative experiences by exuding a perfected life online.

USC can create a stronger, more compassionate Trojan Family by recognizing the multiplicity of positive and negative situations students are currently experiencing and by normalizing the experiences of those who are struggling. At the end of the day, USC is a family, and Trojans should support one another accordingly.