We are all familiar with uplifting aphorisms – accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade – sound advice. There is a basic validity to all of this; it is important for our mental health to maintain an upbeat, optimistic attitude, even in the face of life’s difficulties and obstacles. Nobody wants to be around a person who has a misery-guts temperament.
However, the positive thinking-self help mantra has become a huge multibillion dollar industry. There is a plethora of self-help books, podcasts, webinars and publications all exhorting us to adopt a positive, upbeat attitude in the face of setbacks and obstacles. As Newsweek magazine explained, this corporate philosophy has seeped into the school room, the military, and workplaces.
The late Barbara Ehrenreich (1941 – 2022), who sadly passed away only recently, exposed the dark side of relentless positivity in her work. While known as a writer documenting the growing inequality of capitalist society, it is her work elaborating the positive thinking as a scam that is relevant here. Sonali Kolhatkar wrote about this topic in her recent article.
Being bright sided
In 2009, Ehrenreich published her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In it, she elaborates that while being upbeat in difficult times is all well and good, positive thinking has turned into an American mass delusion. Focusing relentlessly on the individual mindset, we have ignored the many structural inequalities and problems that produce individual down time in the first place.
From the 1990s onwards, as the corporate world experienced mass redundancies, and overwork for the remaining staff, positive thinking became a tool to offset outrage at industrial closures by misdirecting attention to purely individual mindsets. Positive thinking became a measure by which economic inequalities – and the downsizing decisions corporations make which exacerbate those inequities – can be obscured.
In this way, the negative impacts of layoffs and business closures can be reduced to a failing of individual mindsets – the unemployed person is exhorted to simply change to positive thinking (being laid off is an ‘opportunity’) and all will be well. Poverty, rather than being the product of neoliberal economic policies, is presented as an individual failing that can be overcome by specific individual choices.
The phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ contains an element of truth – but in this age of unbridled positive thinking, it has replaced the age-old religious exhortation ‘it’s God’s will’ as a defensively pessimistic aphorism. Speaking of religion, the rise of the ostentatious mega churches is also associated with the cult of positive thinking. The fraudulent prosperity gospel – God wants me to be wealthy – has acquired millions of adherents, particularly in the United States and Latin America.
Jimmy Swaggart, a motivational speaker, performer and ideological charlatan masquerades as a Christian preacher. He promotes his own theologically influenced variety of the positive thinking mantra. Joel Osteen, Jesse Duplantis, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar – these are just some of the ultrawealthy pastors whose riches are allegedly bestowed upon them by an ever-loving God. The prosperity theology downplays collective solidarity and action, and promotes a purely individual approach geared towards embracing consumerism.
Let’s balance out the equation here; it is not only the megachurch religious institutions which promote a variety of positive thinking. Oprah Winfrey, billionaire entrepreneur, media mogul and motivational speaker, has provided a platform for all kinds of pseudoscientific hokum, including positive thinking. Recycling the basic philosophy contained in the books by Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill, Winfrey did her utmost to promote The Secret, a purported ‘law’ of attraction.
Think positive thoughts and goals, and you will attract only positive things into your life. Sounds like an eminently sensible idea, only that Winfrey turned this book into an overwhelming ‘philosophy’ of life. There is a resemblance here to the idea of the Protestant work ethic – that capitalism was built through the individual hard work of each person, implementing a Protestant work ethic.
Attributing the success of the capitalist project to individual self-reliance and motivation is a convenient myth we tell ourselves, ignoring the collective efforts of working class people. Max Weber elaborated this spirit of capitalism idea in his famous book. The notion of individual success dovetails nicely with modernised claims of positive thinking.
While a detailed critique of this alleged work ethic is out of place here, it is necessary to make a relevant observation; the late Rev Dr Martin Luther King stated that capitalism was not built on the Protestant work ethic of self-sacrifice, but upon the enslavement and exploitation of African labour power. The vaunted can-do attitude of American capitalism, where success is simply up to each individual, is based upon the collective labour of millions of people.
In this age of social media, where anyone with a Facebook account can market themselves as a guru in whatever subject they enjoy, we are surrounded by ‘influencers’ and self-proclaimed experts on positive thinking. Let’s put aside the influencers, and start thinking of ourselves as comrades, working together to implement collective solutions to our common problems.