February 23, 2014

Positive Thinking Sucks. ~ Jennifer Moore


I read this New Yorker article. I was struck by the title and the feature image:

Title: The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking by Adam Alter

Image: A man crashing a bicycle, face to the pavement, his shoe suspended in mid-flight

Online publishers know that title and image are the keys to attracting readers. It worked on me.

Stripping all power from the practice of positive thinking is a bold thesis and I was curious to read on what grounds Adam Alter was making such a claim. I was surprised to discover that the article is not about positive thinking.

In the first paragraph Alter focuses briefly on Rhonda Byrne’s latest book, Hero. Byrne, who became a self-help celebrity with the publication of The Secret in 2006, continues to publish books promoting the power of our minds to manifest the things we want in this life. In his New Yorker article, Adler writes:

“Byrne’s idea isn’t new—it’s been a mainstay among greeting-card companies, motivational speakers, and schoolteachers for decades—but she’s become one of its most visible prophets. “The way to change a lack of belief is very simple,” Byrne writes. “Begin thinking the opposite thoughts to what you’ve been thinking about yourself: that you can do it, and that you have everything within you to do it.”

Atler begins paragraph two with the acknowledgement that there is “some truth to Byrne’s ideas about the relationship between thought and action.” Next he interjects a couple points about mind control and perception; neither idea is fully developed. He then quotes Oliver Burkeman:

“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”

And here I paused.

This article entitled, The Powerless of Positive Thinking is actually not about positive thinking. It is about fantastical thinking. In the four paragraphs that follow (to conclude the article), Adler mentions fantasy or fantastical thinking no fewer than 11 times; he mentions positive thinking only twice. Atler does an excellent job highlighting why fantastic thinking is not powerful, and may even be harmful. He does not prove that positive thinking is powerless—because he doesn’t try.

Positive thinking is not the same as fantastical thinking. Choosing to focus on the beauty rather than just the ugliness of the world, choosing to believe in our own self-worth, choosing to focus on the positive aspects of a situation are all characteristics of the positive thinker. But Atler is right, positive thinking is powerless.

What is positive thinking lacking in order to be powerful? … Mindful action.

We are aware.
We commit to daily personal practices that cultivate awareness and a calm mind.
We recognize that life is a rich tapestry woven with good/bad, comfort/challenge, love/ adversity.
We recognize that perception is subjective.
We recognize that change is constant.
We are not ignorant to the challenges we face.
We meet challenges like wise warriors for peace.
We are not victims.
We are active participants in this life.
We act mindfully, with full awareness, to the best of our abilities.
We see beauty everywhere.
We share kindness without limitations.
We love unconditionally.
We recognize we have a choice.
We choose to not be unhappy,
We chose positive thinking.
We take mindful action.

This is the first draft of the Manifesto. I hope you will all continue to help me write it.

Write it with words, images, films, actions,…

Because the alternative is not an option when our intention is to move beyond current limitations, to become the highest versions of our selves, to become better human beings and to create a world we can be proud to leave to our children.

It is not about whether some guy lying on a couch in Wisconsin fantasizes about winning a gold metal in the Olympics. Ask the Olympic gold metal athletes, who have trained their entire lives and and made sacrifices to work towards their goals, if they believe in their ability to win?

And define success cautiously.

Kurt Cobain may have been a successful musician.

Philip Seymour Hoffman may have been a successful actor.

Spalding Gray may have been a successful playwright.

But if we could ask them if they felt they were successful humans, successful at living this life, what would they answer?


Forget Positive Thinking—Try Whole Thinking.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Jennifer Moore

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