Positive Thinking Won't Save Us - In Fact, It Might Kill Us

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cover of B. Ehrenreich's book BrightsidedIn a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Ann Druyan (widow of and frequent collaborator with Carl Sagan) posits that denial of global warming can be blamed (at least partially) on the belief in our culture, reflected in the recurring motif in movies, that if you believe something strongly enough, it’ll happen. Rocky goes the distance. ET comes back to life. Seth Rogen makes a go of it with Katherine Heigl. This is what many of us want to hear. It’s comforting to think that what we want to happen will happen, and to hell with those unforgiving, restrictive laws of the natural world. But if you keep wishing upon a star once you've left the movie theatre, it'll only be so long before the real world chuckles at your hubris and casually shatters your ribcage with a flick of its pinky.


In her book Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), Barbara Ehrenreich looks at where America’s characteristic Positive Attitude comes from, what underlies it, and what its consequences have been. Just a quick note on the book's quality: I’ve reread it twice since devouring it a few months ago. I’ve transcribed extensive portions in preparation for this article and another one. I’ve been reading it aloud to my girlfriend in segments. And dammit, I’ve yet to get tired of it. I’m not going to wax enthusiastic about it any more, but buy the damn book! Read it! It’s fantaaaaaaaastic!!! The other article, by the way, relates the ideas she presents to the Enneagram. This one relates the book’s thesis to the Integral model’s stages of development - specifically how the move toward relentless Positive Thinking represents a regression to the Magic Stage, and why this just doesn’t work in the long run. I end by defending the all important, but often maligned, Rational Stage.


Stages of Development


First let’s take a quick look at those stages, charted by developmental psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, Clare Graves, Carol Gilligan and others. These are overlapping stages all cultures move through (though not every culture reaches the higher stages), and individually each person does too. Each of us is human civilization in microcosm. We all start at square one. And anyone can rise to any level of developmental evolution. We tend to stay around the average level of our culture - what Ken Wilber terms the “centre of gravity.” But every person has their own centre of gravity, which could be beneath or above their culture's. And your level of development is an average of your behaviour. You might express the point of view of a more developed stage one day, and regress to a less developed stage on another.


think positive poster(as a side note - not everyone agrees with the application of these levels to cultures. Integral theorist Bonnitta Roy has an essay on this site arguing that point, and is working on another one. Ken Wilber believes they do, explaining this in the Kosmic Consciousness interviews and elsewhere.)


Stage 1 - Archaic. Simple, immediate needs, readily observed in the behaviour of any baby or toddler.


Stage 2 - Magic. Believing you can change the world by wanting to. Magic words. Inanimate objects have consciousness, and power. Ego projections.


Stage 3 - Mythic/Membership. A transference of one's personal omnipotence onto one or more superbeings. And believing that if you please them, they'll bend the laws of physics for you. And they favour your group. Which creates an "us & them" mentality. And anyone in the "them" category isn't really a person.


Stage 4 - Rational. Modernism. Science. Evidence. If it can't be measured with instruments it doesn't exist. Emotions, metaphysics, the mind and life itself can all be explained as the interactions of hormones, chromosomes, molecules, atoms and quarks.


Stage 5. Pluralistic. Postmodernism. Egalitarianism. No one is better than anyone else. No culture is better than any other. No system of thought is better than any other.


Stage 6. Integral. Understands that this developmental ladder exists, and that every level is stage appropriate. They each have value. But they’re not equal. Stages grow more inclusive and more compassionate the further up they are. But anyone's allowed to be at any stage. The lower stages are not to be despised - they're the ingredients of the higher stages.


Widespread Magical Thinking


The Boomer Generation, as Wilber describes in Kosmic Consciousness, is the first to have a Pluralistic centre of gravity. The Boomers insisted on equal rights for women, the disabled and ethnic minorities. But simultaneously they developed a powerful streak of narcissism, earning them the nickname the “Me Generation.” Wilber later describes this as an accompanying regression (for some, at least) to the Magic Stage, hence the New Age belief that all medical positivityconditions have solely mental causes, and mental cures. Ehrenreich opens Brightsided with an account of her battle with breast cancer, which entailed interaction with support groups who believed full recovery was available for those who showed a strong enough positive attitude. And vice versa - an extremely cruel, victim blaming implication. She was skeptical, and still beat the cancer.


She goes on to chart numerous examples magical thinking spread by the world of Positivity. A perpetually out of work friend of hers had been advised by a life coach to always carry a twenty dollar bill in his wallet, to “attract money.” A website instructs on building a “vision board,” telling the reader to cut the four corners from a dollar bill and glue them to the board’s corners, (even referring to this as “sympathetic magic”), claiming “one must have money to make money.” The DVD of The Secret shows a woman admiring a necklace in a store window, the shot then cutting to one of her wearing the necklace, having somehow “attracted” it. Ehrenreich later tells of an LA Times columnist’s sister who, inspired by The Secret, believed she deserved a hand tooled leather satchel she'd seen, and “manifested” it by charging to her Amex card.


Musician and Integral blogger Stuart Davis takes this message apart in an insightful article dissecting The Secret:


The Secret uses valid (but partial) suppositions such as:


Our thoughts and feelings are powerful


and inflates them to a Kosmic (and false) scale, giving us: Our thoughts are the most powerful things on Earth.


The Secret takes a statement like:


Thought can influence reality


and amplifies it to “Thoughts create reality.” Not just any thoughts, but YOUR thoughts.


(By the way, are you a rape victim? I guess you created that reality with your thoughts. Was your family member killed in Iraq? I guess you created that experience for yourself so you could learn from it. Wow. You are one sadistic cat.)


Many individuals' stage of development allow them to swallow this ego-feeding message whole (and ego-feeding it is - here's another quote from Davis: "What do you want to do with your Divine Power? Free all sentient beings? Awaken every sister and brother from the Dream? Dissolve the source of suffering? No. You want cars. And girlfriends, and boyfriends, and a new red bike and a big new house."). But the culture at large's centre of gravity is too high, especially in the critical (and lucrative) field of business, with its pesky incorporation of the Rational Stage's use of actual numbers. Positive Thinkers, characteristically, believed there was a way to overcome this, so they tried to legitimize their message.


Positivity Puts On Its Magic Science Cloak


In the last few decades, Positive Thinking began incorporating science - or at least seeming to. Motivational speaker and chiropractor Sue Morter tells her audiences that "science has shown without a shadow of a doubt" that we create our own reality. Luckily for such speakers, people tend not to read science, content to leave that to the experts. But Barbara Ehrenreich looks into everything for herself, and questions the abundant Magic Stage distortions with Rational Stage insistence on verifiable facts. Speaker and author Mike Hernacki writes in his book The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want (1982) that our thoughts exert a gravitational force that attracts what we think about. Ehrenreich points out that thoughts aren't objects with mass - they're patterns of neuronal firing, and if they did exert a gravitational force "it would be difficult to take off one's hat." Motivational speaker Michael J. Deepak and Quantum MechanicsLosier claims that thoughts are actually vibrations, which come in two kinds: "Positive (+) and negative (-). Every mood or feeling causes you to emit, send-out or offer a vibration, whether positive or negative." Ehrenreich's rejoinder: "thoughts are not 'vibrations,' and known vibrations, such as sound waves, are characterized by amplitude and frequency. There is no such thing as a 'positive' or 'negative' vibration." Ah, but how about the "magnetic" power of thoughts (namely, you attract something in the physical world by thinking about it strongly enough), as espoused by The Secret, and others? Ehrenreich quotes Michael Shermer writing in Scientific American, who points out that the earth's magnetic field overpowers anything our neuronal firings would be able to put out by a ratio of, quite literally, ten billion to one. Well then how about quantum physics? Hasn't that mystical-seeming field overturned the boring old deterministic Newtonian rules and told us everything can happen and we can't really know anything anyway? Not really - these are misunderstandings, referred to by Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann as "quantum flapdoodle." And actual quantum rules apply on a scale vastly smaller than anything we can see or touch. Even the molecules involved in conducting our thoughts are a hundred times too big.


An especially entertaining critique comes when Ehrenreich interviews Dr. Martin Seligman, head of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. In his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment Seligman presents a "happiness equation": H = S + C + Bring Positivity To Your LifeV, meaning your Happiness (H) is equal to your innate disposition - or Set (S) plus your Circumstances (C) plus any factors under your Voluntary (V) control. Ehrenreich pokes a hole in this with the simplest of questions: what are the units of measurement? And how do you measure your total happiness in mathematical units at all? "Happy thoughts per day?" she wonders. Seligman scowls and avoids giving a direct answer, telling Ehrenreich to google "beta weighting," which turns out to refer to coefficients of the predictors in a regression equation used to find statistical correlations between variables. Ehrenreich then comments:


Seligman had presented his formula as an ordinary equation, like E = MC2, not as an oversimplified regression analysis, leaving himself open to literal minded questions like: How do we know H is a simple sum of the variables, rather than some more complicated relationship, possibly involving “second order” effects such as CV, or C times V? But clearly Seligman wanted an equation, because equations add a veneer of science, and he wanted it quickly, so he fell back on simple addition. No doubt equations make a book look weightier and full of mathematical rigor, but this one also makes Seligman look like the Wizard of Oz.


Ehrenreich reaches a point of particular frustration when she expresses her discomfort with magical pseudo-science to a life coach at a speaker's conference in San Diego, who gives her a "kindly therapeutic look" and asks "'You mean it doesn't work for you?'" Ehrenreich despairs:


If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes, then what kind of reality did she and I share? If it 'worked for me' to say that the sun rises in the west, would she be willing to go along with that, accepting it as my particular take on things? …there's something deeply sociable about science; it rests entirely on observations that can be shared with and repeated by others. But in a world where 'everything you decide is true, is true,' what kind of connection between people can there be? Science, as well as most ordinary human interaction, depends on the assumption that there are conscious beings other than ourselves and that we share the same physical world, with all its surprises, sharp edges and dangers.


The Facts Strike Back


Those sharp edges and dangers can't be wished away forever. In one of the book's later chapters, Ehrenreich charts how the cult of Positivity infected the business world and contributed to the recent economic collapse. The few Think Positive billboard in a desertworkers and executives who clung to the Rational Stage's incorporation of facts found their warnings unheeded, dismissed and resented.  Banking expert Steve Eisman, as described by business writer Michael Lewis, took flack for advising clients to sell their shares of a company's stock because the company was "a piece of shit. I didn't know that you weren't supposed to put a sell rating on companies. I thought there were three boxes - buy, hold, sell - and you picked the one you thought you should." In his book about his years as a senior vice president at Countrywide, Adam Michaelson describes how when he questioned the assumption that housing prices would never stop rising, he was told he worried too much. In 2006, Mike Gelband - Global Head of Fixed Income at Lehman Brothers warned CEO Richard Fuld about what looked to him like a real estate bubble about to burst. He was promptly turfed. Two years later, Lehman Brothers went belly-up, and a New York magazine article described Fuld in 2008, wandering through his Connecticut mansion at night, wracked with insomnia, replaying his firm's demise over and over again, unable to understand what went wrong. Unruly facts can pack a real wallop when you've spent years believing they're your puppets.


In Defense of Rationality


In spite of its various contributions to our lives, the Rational Stage sustains buffetings from many directions. Magical Stage thinkers try to supersede it by claiming we can mould the universe to fit our desires. People at the Mythic/Membership Stage trumpet the superiority of their group's sacred text in debates about evolution and global warming, claiming their god is strong enough to do anything, evidence be damned. Pluralists resent rationality's role deductive reasoning pyramidin forming the unfair patriarchal industrial system, and denigrate logic as being only one way of looking at the world, no better than any other, undeserving of privilege. Integralists (rightly) criticize Scientific Materialism (Rational thinking taken to an extreme end) for its reduction of all spiritual states and human consciousness itself to the interaction of atoms (making humans, in Wilber's words, nothing more than "frisky dirt").


But as Ehrenreich says: "we got where we are, fanning out over the huge continent of Africa and from there all over the earth, through the strength of the knots we could tie, the sturdiness of shelters and boats, the sharpness of spearheads." Rationality is to be fervently praised for its ability to build bridges, develop sanitary and healing surgical procedures, design communication systems, and, ideally, set up laws and regulations that keep our complex financial trading systems from taking us so far out on a limb that we plummet to the hard, unforgiving ground and break our collective tailbone.


Each stage of development contributes to the vast array of human experience. The Magic Stage gives us unfettered imaginative fancies, making our childhoods rich and popular entertainment thrilling. The Mythic/Membership Stage binds us into social groups and gets us taking care of at least some of each other. The Rational Stage lets us learn how to navigate the world of facts, danger and sharp edges. The Pluralistic Stage has us to broaden the boundaries our of previous groups, striving to make sure we treat everyone fairly. And the Integral Stage allows every stage to occupy its appropriate place without letting any of them usurp another's territory. Even though the Rational Stage isn't at the top of the ladder, it's still to be greatly valued. It's necessary, though not sufficient, for our material well being and indeed, for our very survival as individuals and a species.

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  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Wednesday, 16 February 2011 00:10 posted by Matt Lewis

    I have not read 'The Secret', but I have read 'Excuse Me Your Life is Waiting - The Astonishing Power of Feelings' by Lynn Grabhorn. Both books, to my knowledge, describe the law of attraction. I believe strongly in this underlying message. But I think that the message can easily be distorted, and I think TJ is presenting that distorted view of it here.

    I think that reality is shaped by our inner being, but not through positive thinking or thoughts of any kind actually. Rather, reality is shaped through the true and authentic expression of one's feelings. That is the distortion, and I think it's an easy one to make. It's much easier to put on a sunny disposition and to think positively rather than putting in the work to delve into the messy and sometimes frightening world of emotions.

    I also think there are huge connections between disease and other hardships and our feelings. I wouldn't be so cruel to suggest that people are solely responsible for the terrible events or illnesses that befall them, but I will say that victimhood gets in the way of authentic emotional expression.

    I think that when your actions are in alignment with your heart, the universe steps up and notices, providing all sorts of interesting opportunities and avenues to explore. If this is not the case, if your are not well connected to your heart and your actions have no compass but your thoughts, then the universe will send you curveball after curveball until you start acting in alignment with your feelings.

    Debate and criticsm are welcome.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 16 February 2011 23:16 posted by TJ Dawe

    Matt - when you say "reality is shaped through the true and authentic expression of one's feelings" - an important distinction needs to be made. I completely agree that our feelings influence our subjective experience of reality, but I think it's an incorrect and easily made leap to believe that our thoughts and feelings in and of themselves influence objective reality. Which isn't necessarily implied by your statement, but the word "reality" on its own in a sentence like that leaves those interpretations open, and because it would certainly be nice to believe that we can bring prosperity into our lives by wishing for it hard enough (and doing nothing else to gain it), many people believe that. But our subjective experience of reality certainly informs our interaction with the objective world, ie. going to a job interview or a first date with a defeatist attitude, or approaching a business venture or artistic project with the confidence and determination that allows us to make the breakthrough that wins us the golden fleece. And in that sense, our thoughts and feelings completely influence our reality.

    I completely agree about there being a huge connection between disease and our feelings and emotional states. That's the thesis of Gabor Mate's book When the Body Says No - that chronic stress compromises the immune system and makes a person much more susceptible to all kinds of debilitating conditions. And placebos have been used effectively against some complaints. And some people have suffered - even died - from psychosomatic illnesses. But it's very easy to run with those facts - especially if a person is expressing a level of development that resents rationality, logic and science - and believe that all illnesses are caused by the mind - and cured by the mind. Some conditions are caused by external factors. Excessive exposure to radiation will give a person cancer no matter what their inner state is. A fall from a eighth story window will likely result in a broken bone or two, if not death. The physical objective world exists, and has perils, no matter how we feel about it.

    Joseph Campbell said that when a person is in line with their truest purpose, doors open where they'd never been apparent before. And I agree with that. But I don't believe the universe has a sentience - or if it does have one, that that sentience notices and cares about the doings of a primate species that made good on a small planet in a minor solar system in one galaxy among billions of galaxies. Again - not that you said you believed that, but that's an easy interpretation to make when talking about things like this. And it's a tremendously flattering interpretation, just as it's flattering to believe the planet was created for us, and the omnipotent superbeing who created the universe modelled us on Himself, and cares intimately about what each of us does.

    And that's why the distortion of the belief in the effects of positive thinking has such a hold on so many of us: it's flattering and comforting, and feeds our egos, perhaps reminding us of our childhoods when we didn't have to worry about the demands of the objective world, like paying heating bills, or doing taxes, or renewing one's car insurance. And if you wished hard enough for a given gift, it might magically show up under the Christmas tree. The appeal of that world view is immediately apparent to me. But the taxman, the heating company, and the insurance agency tend not to respond to our wishes.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Thursday, 17 February 2011 19:11 posted by Andrew Baxter

    I've had a number of experiences in my life that have conformed with a certain aspect of the conversation that is about to explode here I'm sure.

    When traveling, where I am actually at the most peace with myself and authentic in my interactions with the world (although this may in fact be self-delusionary and represents only a partial self...but that’s for the therapist to decide!!), I tend to be a far more positive person, entering into relationships and situations with an open and Positive mind. There's almost a sort of letting go of the fear that normally holds me back, and at these times, while not necessarily getting what I want – and who really knows what they actually want? – I have most certainly got what I needed.

    I think by discarding all the trappings of a reality I feel I have no real control over, of leaving behind all the assumptions about who I am and what I SHOULD be doing, I am aligning myself with the universe, and while the universe doesn’t sentiently “notice” me, I begin to sentiently notice the universe. I begin to understand my place in it, the role I play in it and by extension the control I do have over my destiny, my own happiness, and the world – reality, subject or objective.

    I think where the idea of Positive Thinking that TJ presents really goes wrong is that it conflates an opening up to the world and receiving what it has to offer, with the act of thinking.

    Thinking something will never, ever make it so, but truly opening oneself up, being present to the world in a general sense, can. Certainly the phone company will not accept my Positive Thinking as a recognised currency, but my ability to pay that bill, to have the means and ability to keep ahead of the expenses of life are at least partly a function of how I engage the world.

    What I think is so disturbing about the Positive Thinking trend, the laws of attraction and the like, is the narrow focus it takes on the receipt of material rewards. I’ve not yet received that motorcycle I’ve been thinking about oh these long years, but thinking positively, approaching and engaging the world from a positive place and not with fear, I’ve received far more.

    In the end, I think the one idea we can take away from the law of attraction is that if we live our lives afraid, bad things will inevitably come to pass. We will attract them. And the opposite is equally as true.

    To paraphrase Eddie Vedder (okay, it’s not his song – but it’s the only version I know) from his performance of Crazy Mary, ‘that what you fear the most, will meet you half-way’.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Saturday, 19 February 2011 20:58 posted by TJ Dawe

    Andrew, this echoes some of what I say in my other Brightsided piece - the Enneagram focussed one ("Three-ness Gone Wild!").

    Our society pushes us to conform to certain values, to excel in her certain ways, and for many of us, it's an awkward fit, an uphill climb, and just doesn't work. We find ourselves miserable and frustrated with ourselves for not "making it" in the way we're supposed to, and this is compounded if we believe that by directing enough positive mental energy at something - internal or external - we can make it so. If it doesn't happen, we often blame ourselves. Something must be wrong with me. Why can't I get this?

    Something I got out of looking into the Enneagram (and my type's profile in specific) is an honest and in depth look at my natural energies, tendencies, talents and faults. I couldn't wish away my bad habits, nor could I change the parts of me my culture sought to discourage, but I could develop a more realistic relationship with them, learning to accept some things, and work to rise above others, and most importantly, to align myself with the direction I seem to be pointed in already.

    In this way, the universe does seem to open up. The external world hasn't changed at all, much less taken notice of me. But if I go with the reality of who I am, I'm better able to work through my negative characteristics and allow my talents to have the room and energy they need.

    And that seems a more positive experience of the world, even though it doesn't involve plastering on a smile and denying any doubts that come my way.

  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Monday, 21 February 2011 20:07 posted by Matt Lewis

    I don't really have anything to add but wanted to express my appreciation for these replies. @TJ, @Baxter, Thanks!

  • Comment Link theurj Sunday, 06 January 2013 14:42 posted by theurj

    This seems like a related enough place to bring attention to my latest blog on happiness, who has it and why. Part of the discussion is on the American obsession with prosperity programming (aka MY wealth), and that the most happy have much more humane and compassionate values expressed in their socio-economic systems.


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