As a writer, I’m a fan of great writing. And great quotes.
Shocking, I know.
But I’ve always cringed a little at the idea of “inspirational quotes,” even as I’ve been guilty of sharing them or using hashtag-inspirationalquote myself. They’ve always seemed like a cynical, if wildly effective ploy to sell knockoff Etsy merch designed in Canva with vector art; to bring people to your publication with search optimized for keyword INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES; or just to gain Instagram followers, usually by copying someone else’s quote and popping your own handle on the bottom of it.
Or just, you know… copying the quote, period.
If I bookmark an original quote that resonates, it’s likely from someone like Emily McDowell or Morgan Harper Nichols, maybe because they’re not necessarily trying to “inspire” — they’re encouraging. Or comforting. Or just speaking truths about life as it is, not life as I wish it to be.
It’s specifically those hollow quotes about happiness that have always hit me wrong for some reason, and I’ve been noticing that there’s starting to be a lot of backlash toward messages that are dishonest at best, harmful at worst.
That backlash is a good thing.
I mean, I just stumbled on a sort of clickbait slideshow of happiness quotes that was published fairly recently. It include this quote: “Be happy. Be bright. Be you.”
That’s from Kate Spade.
That hurts my heart.
Then there’s this from Gabriel García Márquez: “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”
I’m sure my friends undergoing chemo treatment, recovering from surgery, or suffering from torn Achilles tendons or insanely bad menstrual cramps will be glad to know that the cure was in them all along.
Then again, his genre is magical realism, so I presume there would be some magic involved for this to work properly. ( I haven’t read Of Love and Other Demons so I’d be open to any elaboration.)
The other happiness quote that always bugged me is let your smile be your umbrella, because technically, wouldn’t a frown actually be a better umbrella?
I mean, look at the shape of a smile and then look at the shape of an umbrella. There’s a disconnect there!
Give me a ginormous, disembodied frown in a rainstorm any time, then come join me. We’ll stay dry together and laugh out the storm.
Happiness is is so essential to American culture, it’s enshrined as one of our three “inalienable rights,” along with life itself. (We’ll skip the liberty part for now because it’s problematic in all kinds of ways.) So I understand that this constant push for happiness as the ultimate goal is deeply ingrained in us.
Thus, very popular on Instagram.
All this said, of course I want to be happy. Don’t we all? I just want to find it in all the right ways.
I’ve always liked what author Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project has to say about happiness, because it’s grounded in truth, science, research, and her own personal discovery, not magical thinking.
Overall, she knows happiness takes real work.
It’s easy to be heavy; hard to be light.Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project
I guess I am mostly averse to those pat quotes that indicate that you should just “be happy,” which isn’t something that’s accessible to everyone at all times.
Sometimes, quotes make you feel worse. Like “why can’t I just get happy if it’s so easy?”
It all clicked this week when my friend and former colleague Emily Stetzer, the co-founder of Presently Bracelets, published a thoughtful blog post about 6 phrases we all use that are actually really toxic.
The first one: Good vibes only.
Presently Bracelets is a beautiful company founded by two sisters who suffer from OCD and anxiety. They create jewelry inscribed with sayings pulled directly from cognitive behavioral therapy—the kinds of mantras that are genuinely effective in helping you manage unhelpful thought patterns—and donate a portion of sales to impactful mental health organizations.
They are the kinds of mantras that flip “inspirational quotes” on their head, so they become more productive than merely aspirational.
About “good vibes only,” Emily writes:
I used to live my life by the mantra of “good vibes only,” hoping that simply willing positivity into existence would bring about a sense of well-being. However, I soon realized that you can’t just wish away anxiety or mental health disorders. It takes real work and effort to navigate through the challenges they present.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, telling yourself that “only good vibes are allowed here” may seem like a helpful approach. But what happens to all that anxiety when you push it aside? Does it truly disappear, or does it resurface even stronger later on?
Instead of masking anxiety with empty positivity, a more effective approach is to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and face the problem head-on. By acknowledging and accepting the anxiety, you create space for genuine growth and healing. It’s in this process of facing our fears and seeking rational solutions that we can truly experience a shift towards lasting well-being.
So, rather than hoping for good vibes, try embracing the discomfort, allowing yourself to address the root causes of your anxiety, and finding practical ways to cope with it. In doing so, you may discover that genuine good vibes and a sense of inner peace are within your reach.
I know that doesn’t all fit neatly in a 1×1 Instagram square, but I think it’s wonderful.
Oh, and her alternative: Brave the uncomfortable.
Read the post for the other 5 quotes she discusses. You may not agree with all of them, but I think it’s fascinating to know that some quotes really do have the ability to create positive impact on us and our ability for emotion regulation, as proven out by actual psycho-social therapy techniques.
As for me, I bought a Presently bracelet that says “it’s okay to feel how I feel.” You can’t imagine how reassuring it is every time I look at it.
I could even say it makes me happy.
Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.