Lost, not profound – the tyranny of the motivational quote

We all know people who post motivational quotes. They’re usually lovely people who genuinely wish others well, but they sure post a lot of inspirational stuff.


In 2015, a study linked such posts to low intelligence scores, in addition to discreet unfriendings. I’m not convinced by the correlation between IQ and sharing pictures of sunsets and silhouetted climbers captioned “See people not for who they are, but who they can become.” But I am interested in why, certainly for me, such motivational posters do not just fail to motivate but actively dispirit and sadden me. Why I and others feel wearied by them, and why low moods are not soothed but exacerbated by their messages.

After all, it’s just a lovely picture and a kindly-meant sentiment. What could be depressing about that?

1. Pressure to be happy and optimistic. When I was little I loved My Little Pony (bear with me). But the MLP movie had some seriously unhealthy messages for children regarding happiness. The main enemy was a purple flood called The Smooze, cooked up by cackling witches sick of the ponies’ happy smiling faces. The Smooze made anyone it touched gloomy and grumpy – a normal pre-teen, in other words. When one of the baby ponies was Smoozed, she was greeted with horror and treated like damaged goods until restored to the default Pony state of delirious sunniness. Honest, it took until Inside Out for a kids’ movie to right this wrong.


Similarly, motivational posters are cloaked orders enforcing a norm of smiley happy joy joy: get on with it; be positive; stop worrying; believe in yourself; stop crying because this person climbed a mountain etc. On the face of it, all good messages to receive. But if you’re really low, or having a rough time for whatever reason, they’re the social media equivalent of rubbing ginger in your eyes. Nothing guaranteed to make you feel more broken and alienated than a message telling you that this injured dog making friends with a wingless duckling has it together than you so pull yourself together.

2. A vague sense of despair that other people find comfort in platitudes. You know these people. You like them. And yet you feel like the emperor is standing there before the lot of you, shaking his stark naked behind while everyone comments on the trim of his cloak.

I mean, say you’ve missed your train, your kid’s thrown up on you and someone just shoved you into a railing in their commuting rush. How, then, in Niflheim, does this hunk of stale cheese help?


No respect to the bird. I love birds. Some of my best friends are birds.

Seeing 25 Likes on a post like this only serves to remind you that you’re the only person in the world for whom some bus passenger’s tinnily blaring headphones aren’t just Nature’s way of telling us to dance more.

3. The queasy discomfort of disability porn. Using people with disabilities to illustrate a quote about trying hard by a non-disabled person as if being disabled is something that can be overcome with faith, trust and pixie dust. Instead of, y’know, less social stigma and better accessibility options.


4. Ditto other marginalised groups.


5. The basic feeling of being talked down to. I mean, it’s always a winner. Bonus points for gendering that message.


If the flood of motivational quotes and posters is actively wearing you down, but you don’t want to mute, block or unfriend the friend in question, I recommend the following three-step plan:

1) Cleanse your palate by googling a topic of your choice and ‘demotivational’ for some top visual snark.

2) Install the plugin Rather on your browser and replace a kill list of “inspirational” “beautiful”, “so true” etc. with picture of robots, pandas, Shakira – anything you like. Hit refresh and whenever a friend gushes over a poster, up will pop R2D2, Po or that mud-wrestling bit out of the ‘Whenever, Wherever” video. Originally built to replace babies with bacon, Rather is rather good.

3) Channel your inner Bianca del Rio. Get trolling with your own subversive posters and break the cycle, once and for all.


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