“Things have a way of working themselves out if we just remain positive.”
— Lou Holtz
Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking influenced a lot of people when it came out, and it had a particular effect on Fred Trump, Sr. and his son, Donald Trump. While I cannot argue that a sunnier disposition is often more effective than a morose one, the idea that you can force the world into conformity just by having a positive attitude is a gross oversimplification of an idea that cannot be applied in black-and-white terms. The world is a complex place, and it is filled with many complex human beings, many of whom want many different things. But Donald Trump is not the only person to decide that he can simply will things into being if he wishes for it hard enough. This kind of magical thinking is everywhere in our society, and it comes from many seemingly different places.
“I don’t think anything is unrealistic if you believe you can do it.”
— Mike Ditka
Believing in yourself and in your dreams is powerful, no question, but we do not control any outcome in this chaotic universe. My wife spent the first part of her life on crutches and is now in a power chair. She may believe that she will stand up and walk any day now, but that doesn’t mean it will be so. A number of conservative Christians have morphed this sort of positive thinking into what Chris Hedges calls “Magic Jesus,” and many adherents don’t worry about getting or dying from covid-19 because they are certain that Jesus simply won’t let them. Some, no doubt, will hold this “positive” belief until they breathe their last on a ventilator. “Positive thinking” has its limits.
In the New Age movement, this idea was perhaps most obviously presented in The Secret, which essentially says that you can get anything you want simply by wishing for it hard enough. As a self-professed “woo-woo” kind of gal, I do think that we get a return on our energy output; good energy put into the universe will generally produce more good energy. However, that doesn’t mean that we have any control over what that will look like. A single grain of sand does not determine the overall shape of the dune.
The main harm, and this is really toxic, that comes from the New Age version of “positive thinking” is that it has convinced a number of people that they are somehow failing if they ever have a negative emotion. This leads to people repressing these feelings when they do — and must — arise, rather than dealing with them in a healing manner. My mother, a textbook narcissist, has spent her entire life denying her negative emotions (“I live a calm, quiet life,” she says), but this has left her anger to solidify into the bedrock of her existence. Feelings are messengers, good or bad. Sadness, anger, grief, depression are all difficult feelings, but they are an essential part of our human experience. When we attempt to block any of these feelings, we end up blocking ALL of them — even the good ones.
“Being what most people think is realistic is only a way of justifying negative thinking. Go for something great.”
— Dr. Bob Rotella
“Being realistic” is not negative when it is painting reality as it exists. To avoid looking at that reality because it is unpleasant is just another way of deciding you’re not going to deal with the problem. “Positive thinking” will not cause climate change, systemic racism, systemic income inequality, sexism, or covid-19 to vanish. Here’s a meme I came across recently that perfectly demonstrates this childlike mindset:
It doesn’t matter that most of the so-called data points in this meme are specious at best. What makes this truly toxic is that it says that everyone should view the world like Pollyanna and see only what you want to see. Hard problems like racism, pandemics, and police brutality can be dismissed with the snap of your fingers and your own applied blinders.
It’s no wonder that we face an existential crisis as a species, given this see-no-evil view that is currently so popular. We’ll just keep driving big cars, poisoning our drinking water, and abusing each other until the last person is standing. This criminal inaction is hardly “loving.”
If we really want to be loving — and generate positivity in the world — we can start by taking a long, hard look at reality. Nothing is working. We are failing more people than we are helping. We are in the midst of a huge extinction event. We fight each other over crumbs while a handful of people hoard most of the world’s wealth. We use hate to mask our despair and inaction while the world burns.
“To be an overachiever you have to be an over-believer.”
— Dabo Swinney
We could use “positive thinking” to create a new society from the ground up. But we won’t do it by ignoring the negative reality we’re drowning in. We can’t simply “meditate our problems away.” We have to brainstorm. We have to act. We have to imagine. We have to work. And along the way, we will feel anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, angry, and sad. And that is as it should be.