“Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” Information literacy and toxic positivity – Alison Hicks, University College London

Dr Alison E Hicks
Dr Alison E Hicks

I’ve recently been reading about the concept of toxic positivity, which is the assumption that we should always maintain a happy and optimistic outlook on life (Goodman, 2022). Emerging from the idea that thinking and acting positively can improve mental health by grounding us or encouraging gratitude, positivity has been critiqued for becoming toxic when it starts to invalidate authentic experience and denormalise negative emotions. Common examples of toxic positivity are being told to ‘look on the bright side’ or that ‘everything happens for a reason’. People might come out with these statements when they are trying to be sympathetic or helpful, but in actuality, they run the risk of shaming us- both for the upsetting emotions and for the sense that we are not working harder to get rid of these feelings from our lives.

Evidently, I am not a psychologist or a counsellor and I am extremely conscious (and wary) of the recent drive to position librarians in mental health capacities. I’m also aware that everyone copes with things in different ways and that emotional suppression may be a useful or neutral strategy in many situations. However, reading about the impact of this pressure to be happy also made me wonder how toxic positivity may (or may not) be entangled within information literacy narratives, including teaching and working practices as well as broader standards and frameworks. After all, as my colleague and I point out in our examination of recent information literacy models (Hicks & Lloyd, 2021), social discourse shapes both what we understand to mean by information literacy and our specific teaching practices.

The obvious place to start exploring these ideas is the Information Search Process (ISP), Kuhlthau’s 1991 model of information seeking, which is frequently credited with introducing affect to information literacy research. Modelling the various stages of a search process, the ISP also outlines the emotions felt at each stage, including optimism and satisfaction, amongst others. However, in re-reading this model, it is easy to see how it might stray into toxic positivity territory; the ISP’s tendency to associate progress with affirmative emotions, such as satisfaction and confidence, risks positioning successful information seeking as a uniquely positive experience. The corralling of feelings of sadness and anger into one early stage of the information search process could also be seen as suppressing legitimate concerns or fears while further failing to recognise how ‘negative’ emotions may protect us, including by knowing when to rest, how to learn from mistakes and to identify what is important.

These ideas are not just limited to the ISP. I had the honour of working with an MA student, Alex Hewitt, this summer, who pointed out how the ACRL Framework dispositions similarly uniquely centre ‘positive’ emotions (Hewitt, 2022). Teaching practices are also not immune to the toxic positivity trap, particularly given our desire to help resolve learners’ issues. When a learner is struggling with research or is upset at a one-to-one meeting, for example, do we immediately jump in with advice, tell them that this isn’t worth crying over or implore them not to give up? Or do we ask them how they want to be supported right now, acknowledge that crying can be helpful, and respect that there are situations in which giving up is brave? Along the same lines, do we make space for (normal and natural) tough emotions in our lesson plan- or are we fixated on making every IL day a fun day with non-stop excitement and enjoyment all round? It makes sense that we may prefer to avoid these tough situations – because being with someone who is upset is hard and we just want to make the pain go away. However, a constant focus on positive emotions can also be unhelpful – and at worst, unethical, when it might cause people to make uninformed decisions about their life, academic studies and health.

Goodman finishes her book by reminding us that humans have a variety of emotions, of which some are more challenging than others. What might an information literacy that acknowledges these expressions look like, and how might we centre both the highs and the lows of information experience in our work?

Goodman, W. (2022). Toxic Positivity: keeping it real in a world obsessed with being happy. Hachette UK.
Hewitt, A. (2022). What Role Can Affect And Emotion Play In Academic And Research Information Literacy Practices? MA Thesis, University College, London.
Hicks, A., & Lloyd, A. (2021). Deconstructing information literacy discourse: Peeling back the layers in higher education. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 53(4), 559-571.
Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Contributed by Alison Hicks, Programme Director, Library and Information Studies UCL, Editor in Chief Journal of Information Literacy and Information Literacy Researcher

2 thoughts on ““Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” Information literacy and toxic positivity – Alison Hicks, University College London”

  1. Interesting article and thought provoking – I also wonder if Librarians feel inclined to present the search more positively to counter students initial search sadness.

    1. Alison Hicks

      Thanks, Jodie! And yes, quite possibly- I can see that happening in a sort of saviour-ish way, which again has interesting toxic positivity implications. Interesting to think about!

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