This blog often criticizes positive thinking. One way to criticize it is to point to specific positive thinkers who did not achieve full success, such as Brian Tracy and Wallace Wattles. Another way is to point out the fact that positive thinking is often used to cover up scams with glittering generalities.
It can be very difficult to figure out how effective positive thinking is. If Tony Robbins thinks that he can teach 7000 people to walk on hot coals, but out of those 7000 only 5 got burned, maybe that’s true. But maybe Tony Robbins isn’t counting the burns properly. Maybe 70 people were burned badly and only 5 complained about it.
The fact that positive thinking appeared to work well for 7000 people is sufficient to justify serious research into self-empowerment by positive thinking. However, when such research leads us to doubt positive thinking, honest researchers must voice those doubts.
In this post, I will argue that the solution to practical problems is 1% positive thinking and 99% practical action.
People who talk up positive thinking frequently hope to make money as they destroy your economic position. That might happen by union-busting, or by selling you quack medicine and positive thinking books.
UncaBob posted a piece with some elements of truth, presented in a potentially misleading way, at:
And in this post, I am going to disagree with most of it.
1. Waiting for the future. Telling yourself, “I’ll be happy when …” is one of the easiest unhappy habits to fall into. How you end the statement doesn’t really matter (it might be a promotion, more pay, or a new relationship) because it puts too much emphasis on circumstances, and improved circumstances don’t lead to happiness. Don’t spend your time waiting for something that’s proven to have no effect on your mood. Instead focus on being happy right now, in the present moment, because there’s no guarantee of the future.
Being happy “right now” is not a practical plan when you are in pain and you can’t get painkillers – or, for that matter, if you take too many painkillers and lapse into a drooling stupor.
There are definite practical limits to the human ability to pay attention to the present moment. (The Buddhists will be happy to tell you all about this sort of challenge.)
Within your limited abilities, you should pay attention to the present moment, but your goal often should be practical action, not happiness.
And when you fail (because everyone fails sometimes) your attention will necessarily get pulled away from the present moment. That isn’t a tragedy. Sometimes you really do have to get lost in mental abstractions in order to survive.
When your house is safe and your belly is full, you have the leisure to think “the present moment is beautiful and Buddha was right about mindfulness.”
When your house is filthy and your belly is empty, don’t just sit there saying, “Present moment, beautiful moment. The filthy house is pretty in its own way. The empty belly is a happy sensation in its own way.” That’s an abuse of philosophy.
Instead, when your house is filthy and your belly is empty, start THINKING and PLANNING. Decide whether the empty belly is more important than the filthy house. If yes, leave the house, get food. If no, clean the house first. This kind of thinking and planning is totally separate from the hippy-dippy “mindfulness” sold by modern-day preachers.
Certainly, you are setting yourself up for misery when you tell yourself, “I’m miserable working at this dead-end job, but it will all be worth it when I get a better job.” That doesn’t mean you should be happy and content at a dead-end job right now. It means you should be discontented and disgruntled, not only with YOUR dead-end job, but with a social system that makes the majority of people miserable.
2. Spending too much time and effort acquiring “things.” People living in extreme poverty experience a significant increase in happiness when their financial circumstances improve, but it drops off quickly above $20,000 in annual income. There’s an ocean of research that shows that material things don’t make you happy. When you make a habit of chasing things, you are likely to become unhappy because, beyond the disappointment you experience once you get them, you discover that you’ve gained them at the expense of the real things that can make you happy, such as friends, family, and hobbies.
That’s fine for people with big salaries. Many people don’t have enough money to buy necessities for long-term living, including basic medicine.
3. Staying home. When you feel unhappy, it’s tempting to avoid other people. This is a huge mistake as socializing, even when you don’t enjoy it, is great for your mood. We all have those days when we just want to pull the covers over our heads and refuse to talk to anybody, but understand that the moment this becomes a tendency, it destroys your mood. Recognize when unhappiness is making you antisocial, force yourself to get out there and mingle, and you’ll notice the difference right away.
Note that socialization isn’t always good for you or for your society. If you spend your time “socializing” with loose women, you’re not going to build a family or a society.
Society is set up to distract the workers and welfare recipients. Television and Facebook are working for the Man.
The good news is that truly subversive media exist, notably the Tor Project. It remains to be seen whether they will survive; for example, Russia might decide to ban cryptography and China might follow suit.
Note that modern Western societies, particularly America, are winner-take-all societies.
Forbes preaches against:
4. Seeing yourself as a victim. Unhappy people tend to operate from the default position that life is both hard and out of their control. In other words, “Life is out to get me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” The problem with that philosophy is that it fosters a feeling of helplessness, and people who feel helpless aren’t likely to take action to make things better. While everyone is certainly entitled to feel down every once in a while, it’s important to recognize when you’re letting this affect your outlook on life. You’re not the only person that bad things happen to, and you do have control over your future as long as you’re willing to take action.
Part of that might make sense, specifically: “you do have control over your future as long as you’re willing to take action.”
Yeah, but bear in mind that “action” might only empower you if it’s the kind of “action” that Forbes hates. Kind of like when the American capitalists told the Vietnamese that the Vietnamese were poor because they were lazy, and the Vietnamese said, “We won’t be lazy,” and then diligently slaughtered 58,000 Americans, and kept a few prisoners. Don’t tell poor people to stop being lazy unless you’re sure you can win a war against them.
But positive thinking is stupid when it claims life isn’t hard and out of control. Many things really ARE out of control.
But if you’re lower class, then socioeconomically, you ARE a victim. Read Nickel and Dimed if you don’t believe me.
What’s this? Posting links to gen.lib.rus.ec? How edgy can I get?
No, seriously, I am posting that link as a trial balloon. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some MAFIAA harassment of blogs that link to gen.lib.rus.ec.
5. Pessimism. Nothing fuels unhappiness quite like pessimism. The problem with a pessimistic attitude, beyond it being hard on your mood, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you expect bad things, you’re more likely to get bad things. Pessimistic thoughts are hard to shake off until you recognize how illogical they are. Force yourself to look at the facts, and you’ll see that things are not nearly as bad as they seem.
6. Complaining. Complaining itself is troubling as well as the attitude that precedes it. Complaining is a self-reinforcing behavior. By constantly talking—and therefore thinking—about how bad things are, you reaffirm your negative beliefs. While talking about what bothers you can help you feel better, there’s a fine line between complaining being therapeutic and it fueling unhappiness. Beyond making you unhappy, complaining drives other people away.
7. Blowing things out of proportion. Bad things happen to everybody. The difference is that happy people see them for what they are—a temporary bummer—whereas unhappy people see anything negative as further evidence that life is out to get them. A happy person is upset if they have a fender bender on the way to work, but they keep things in perspective: “What a hassle, but at least it wasn’t more serious.” An unhappy person, on the other hand, uses it as proof that the day, the week, the month, maybe even their whole life, is doomed.
10. Trying to keep up with the Joneses. Jealousy and envy are incompatible with happiness, so if you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, it’s time to stop. In one study, most subjects said that they’d be okay with making less money, but only if everybody else did too. Be wary of this kind of thinking as it won’t make you happy and, more often than not, has the opposite effect.
Forbes decries all of the above because all those things are what lower-class political organizers do to get the factory workers into labor activism.
8. Sweeping problems under the rug. Happy people are accountable for their actions. When they make a mistake, they own it. Unhappy people, on the other hand, find problems and mistakes to be threatening, so they try to hide them. Problems tend to get bigger when they’re ignored. The more you don’t do anything about a problem, the more it starts to feel as though you can’t do anything about it, and then you’re right back to feeling like a victim.
Poor people who work are exhausted. They often sweep problems under the rug because all their capacity for “owning” their problems has been used at work.
Being “accountable” for your actions makes sense in many settings. If you are hired to carry hundred-pound sacks of flour, and you don’t lift those sacks, carry them where they need to be, and put them down intact, then you need to be accountable for that failure.
If, on the other hand, you are miserable and society sucks, people who tell you to be “accountable” are just using positive thinking as a shaming strategy.
And if you aren’t convinced by my explanation, you are cordially invited to read Bright-Sided.
But there’s no guarantee that Bright-Sided will convince you.
Forbes preaches against:
9. Not improving. Because unhappy people are pessimists and feel a lack of control over their lives, they tend to sit back and wait for life to happen to them. Instead of setting goals, learning, and improving themselves, they just keep plodding along, and then they wonder why things never change.
Constant demands for self-improvement are often a harassment tactic. Note that “improvement” is usually framed in terms that benefit the harasser. E.g. “You Chinamen are complaining about society, but take the planks out of your own eyes first. You Chinamen don’t deserve to be paid because you’re building that railroad too slowly. You should improve yourselves.” Even if the coolies improve themselves, their boss won’t admit it unless they build the railroad faster. And if they do manage to build the railroad faster, the boss might pay them the wages they are owed, but in any event, he will laugh all the way to the bank, because a little shaming and harassment got his railroad functioning profitably ahead of schedule.
This kind of shaming tactic is insidious, because it combines an assertion of a general truth (“Take the plank out of your own eye before you try to remove the mote from another’s eye.”) with an assumption that the truth is relevant (The speaker has not proven which party is the most blind).
A similar variation is when feminists shame celibate Christians. The feminist says, “You say that other people treat you poorly, but you should improve yourself by having sex with two dozen men in a week.” If the Christian is willing to test that theory of self-improvement, she will give up her Christian principles and become a pawn for feminism. If the Christian is not willing to try, the feminist can endlessly harass her, while claiming to be altruistic and self-sacrificing.
So why do so many people complain of depression? What is wrong with THEM?
There is nothing wrong with THEM. Society really does suck, those people really are victims, and most of the problems are in the physical world, not in your imagination.
However, there is one problem that is mental, and that is the deluded optimism of Western crony capitalism.
I don’t know if that delusion can be cured, but I’m trying to think positively about it.