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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The not-so-sunny side of positive thinking

I have always believed in the power of positive thinking as a propelling force in life. But Andrew Marr's interview on Radio 4 with an anti-positive thinking writer last week made me stop in my tracks and review my position on where to draw the line between healthy optimism and sheer delusion.

Barbara Ehrenreich (above), author of Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America ('Bright-Sided' in US edition) argues the ever so profitable positive thinking industry in America (remember The Secret?) has created such a deeply ingrained culture that 'positive' became "not only normal but normative – the way you should be," as Janice Harayda says in her excellent One-Minute Book Reviews.

Lucy Ellmann, in her Guardian review, says:
"Americans aren't happy, they're just trained to look as if they are. It's fake orgasm on a grand scale, and we're almost deafened by the din."
Barbara's journey
When diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, Ehrenreich was appalled by "the constant exhortations to be positive, to be optimistic at all times to the point of embracing the disease as a gift." The sites she found while searching for in
formation about the cancer referred to it as an almost spiritual experience, at the end of which one would come out more "evolved", a better person even.

The associated implication was that:
"if you didn't get better, you weren't a positive thinker"
even though subsequent studies could establish no connection between a patient's attitude and mentality and cancer survival rates.
"It's not some kind of harmless encouragement. This seems like a burden."
she says on Marr's programme. On top of having to deal with the stress of the treatments, patients have the double burden of feeling pressured to think positively and have only themselves to blame for in case treatment was unsuccessful.

For the full version of Barbara Ehrenreich's fascinating interview on Radio 4, listen to the podcast below: (Ehrenreich comes on at about 11 min):

Kehoe's Mind Power
The same logic can be applied to the unemployed during the current economic downturn. If anyone is made redundant or the job they have been positively "visualising" didn't materialise itself, are they to blame for their failure to eschew 'negative' thoughts?

I too have often fed a few quid into that multi-million-dollar feel-good industry by purchasing self-help books, videos, workshops and talks, hoping against hope that if I can manage to will my mind to think only thoughts of health, wealth and success, I may just about land that dream job, which will fulfill my professional aspirations, banish all 'red' figures from my bank balance and fill my life with such joy I will boast abundant health forever.

When I took my four-week Mind Power course last September, which advertised itself with the tagline "Transform Your Life", I was told by the tutor: "You will get out of it exactly what you put in it." Every week he reminded us: "You must do the mind power exercises every single day." "Persevere." "Remember: stop reacting to external circumstances, you must create your own reality."

Mind Power, as a form of enforced positive thinking, can be exhausting in that its exercises are like drills one does when learning a foreign language, repetition being the key to mastery. I was utterly terrified of missing my exercises and spoiling my "breakthrough moment", as John Kehoe, the founder, calls it.

Although the drills temporarily lifted my mood, I could not help but feel a pang of guilt when I failed to get a job I had been interviewed for before Christmas, and about which I had done hundreds of daily positive affirmations. Had I not done enough? Did I let self-doubt seep in and cancel my positive thoughts? I must have brought it upon myself, was my thinking.

To be honest, after more than a year out of work, I really didn't need another reason to feel demoralised.

God is capitalist

In Smile or Die, Ehrenreich goes as far as suggesting that the positive thinking culture was responsible for the recent collapse of American banks – a result of Wall Street bankers following the "prosperity gospel" of "God wants you to be rich", the title of one of the chapters in her book.

In fact, while doing my own motivational course, my tutor said we should "seed" (=feel within) the vibration of success, and if we didn't know what that felt like, we should "go sit at the lobby of the Hilton Hotel", which supposedly was brimming with the right type of vibes.

What disturbed me was the assumption that success can only be achieved through material wealth, that the lifestyle of guests at four and five-star hotels was to be emulated. There is nothing wrong with the desire to own money – I do like money and comfort myself but I disagree with that perception that happy = rich. Did we import that concept from America too, or is it a natural product of our capitalist society?

If positive thinking is as effective as the gurus say, why do Americans – voracious consumers of that culture – need to "consume two-thirds of the world's antidepressants" in order to have a nice day? asks Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times.

Creating my reality
After the course I purchased Kehoe's Money, Success and You. With Christmas coming up, I was feel
ing decidedly poor, with job applications disappearing into black holes and my bank account nearly overdrawn. I wanted to create a new reality in which there was a secure job and no more financial worries.

I found the first half of the book inspirational, especially the chapter where Kehoe says with every 'no' we hear, we are one step close to a 'yes'. To a desperate jobseeker like myself, those words felt like a soothing balm. Unfortunately, the latter half read like a business manual for salespeople: the 'a-ha' moment of successful entrepreneurs, how to get your customers to buy from you, how to keep their loyalty... All very well for a man who made his millions on the back of his positive thinking parlance, but not all professions are about selling, and not all success can be measured in monetary terms.

If we can realise all our dreams just through thinking about them everyday for half an hour, we can all be masters of our destiny. That's what positive schools of thinking claim you can do. But then is there no room for serendipity in this life, for twists of fate and unexpected happy endings that were not written in your own script but turns out to be a more suitable outcome than the one you had envisaged?

Ironically, not knowing what tomorrow may bring is at once our most feared uncertainty and the most treasured joie de vivre.

Charlotte's choice
But surely there are moments and people for whom positive may not be an option? The words Haiti and earthquake come to mind...

On Saturday I read the story of Charlotte Raven (Charlotte Raven: Should I take my own life?), who seems to fit that profile. The 40-year-old Raven has tested positive for the incurable and degenerative Huntington's disease. In the Guardian weekend magazine Raven courageously talks about the shock of her diagnosis four years ago, her contemplation of suicide and an early end at Dignitas, and how that would affect her husband and young child.

Astonished to find out that as much as three quarters of people with HD did not choose to end their lives but carried on, she travels to a fishing village in Venezuela where Huntington's had become endemic, seeking answers, meeting HD carers and patients in advanced stages of the disease, only to choose life in the end. This despite the knowledge of the suffering and indignity, which will inevitably come one day. Raven concludes:
"Registering the discomfort of existence, I felt a great wave of self-pity, the first since my diagnosis. I felt worthy of being cherished and knew I'd do whatever it took to survive. [...] Suicide is rhetoric. Life is life."

The discomfort of existence

A couple of weeks ago, as I walked my dog in the local snow-clad park, observing the white landscape, noticing the profound silence everywhere interrupted only by the low squeak of my boots, I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of peace. Absence of colours and absence of sound: peace could not have been more complete.

I could not bring myself to practise my positive affirmations nor entertain morbid thoughts on unemployment and poverty. Strangely, my thoughts, inside a brain that is normally a chatterbox, came to a complete halt. It was like going into a meditative state, finally reaching a place of complete stillness and comforting knowledge that everything will be all right.

Charlotte Raven must also have found her inner peace in the midst of pain and chaos. Her total acceptance of the now, whatever that may be, brought her the strength to embrace life for what it actually is: a delicate blend of dark and light.

Maybe then positive is not all about refuting negatives and aiming for an opulent lifestyle, not even enjoying perfect health all the time. Maybe a more lasting positiveness can be achieved through learning to tap into that magic space, where thoughts, and therefore emotional reactions and judgment, cease to exist.

René Descartes
said "I think therefore, I am." But does our existence dependent on our thinking all the time? My own view is that there is a thinking self and a knowing self, but the latter can hardly ever get a word in edgeways because the former is so loud.

If we debated less frequently with ourselves, if we actually stopped using our minds to label every circumstance in life as positive or negative, wouldn't life become altogether more tolerable, and as a result more positive? And yet, in a world where so few are enlightened enough to live that way, perhaps positive thinking techniques needs to remain, for the foreseeable future, a necessary evil, an opium of modern society.

Here's an excellent video of Ms Ehrenreich giving a talk about her book:

Related links:
If you are interested in finding out more about Smile or Die, read the following:

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Anonymous David Wilcox said...

Thanks for crafting this piece so well. I skimmed, re-read, reflected ... and wondered if we are talking about at least three things here: personal mind exercises that may or may not be helpful; some US cultural norms as in "always awesome" that can be tiresome and delusional; and how we behave personally and in our working roles. I've been thinking about useful journalism, and exploring the role and values of a social reporter. I recently jotted down Make Sense, Be Positive, Help out (followed by Be Critical)
After reading your piece I wondered about Be Positive ... but I'll keep it in. I think it's OK when combined with Be Realistic, and the others.
How's the job search going? Do please join us over at - we have some of the hyperlocal crew over there, and a socialreporter group

22 January 2010 at 10:33  
Blogger Nancy White said...

Lovely post. Thank you. Thought provoking and I appreciate that.

For me it is important to not generalize about "being positive." It is not the same thing as the BS Positive Thinking products touted by many. Ehrenrich makes that clear in her work.

Perhaps a better term is "keep possibility in view." Not falling into hopelessness or downward spiraling negativity.

The beauty of the winter's day in the park. The possibility of being worthy of being cherished. For me, this is what a "positive" attitude is about. Not about false cheeryness or foolish optimism. Not about denial. Not about national cultural stereotypes.

In the past, the words "civility" and "nice" have also fallen victim to abuse by those looking to police behavior, advance conformity, rather than understand the role of compassion in the world. Feels similar to the cooption of "positive."

But think about some other approaches, such as "Positive Deviance," or using an asset based approach with Appreciative Inquiry (which, by the way, is not about denial of problems and if practice that way, falls into the cheeryness trap as well. It is about building on assets!)

I hope in reaction to "cheeryness" we don't confuse positive-thinking-poppycock with the power of possibility, eh? I like the image you put up of the continuum. It is in that beautiful tension, the complexity and sometimes mystery of life that possibility can emerge. It isn't always "positive" or "negative." But for me, it is a life force.

22 January 2010 at 15:11  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Thank you for your great comments, David and Nancy. I agree with Nancy's view that there is positive thinking and there is (BS) positive thinking.

I guess the problem is that most motivational speakers end up encouraging people to seek for positives in the external world so that their realisation becomes inextricably linked with and dependent on something happening in the outside world. It is so tenuous and volatile... Why should we live in such an unending state of anxiety?

Nancy, I like the way you talk about "possibility". Sadly many of us have lost the ability to let go and open the doors to possibility. We are obsessed with measurable results we can tangibly understand. We tend to crave instant gratification and cannot tolerate uncertainty. But,as you say, it is not just a question of positive or negative. Learning to ride those life waves like a surfer might be the key to the real positivity.

23 January 2010 at 02:09  

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