Book Review: A critical look at positive thinking

DSC07578Serial, a 1980 comedy, puts regular guy Harvey Holroyd (Martin Mull) in a community of New Age philosophy, cults, and sexual freedom in Marin County, California, that tears at the fabric of his family.  His wife, Kate, (Tuesday Weld), participates in a women’s consciousness raising group that is only too happy to point out Harvey’s flaws, while his rebellious teenage daughter, Joanie (Jennifer McAllister) becomes frustrated that Harvey suppresses her rights, and interferes with her peer-group dynamic, her socialization, her individuation and the father-daughter interface, that she flees to join a cult.  Most of Harvey and Kate’s friends are seeing therapist Dr. Leonard Miller (Peter Bonerz) who is medicating them all, including himself, but not Harvey.  Having seen this movie again recently on DVD, I laughed at its satire of the self-help industry and cult of optimism that has oozed into our society more significantly in recent years.  The movie does takes pot shots at environmentalism, feminism, vegetarianism, and homosexuality, and one scene is set at an orgy that Harvey’s secretary talks him into attending.  If sarcasm and satire isn’t your thing, this movie isn’t for you.

And, if you’re one who is guided by a secret, who believes unlimited power comes from pure optimism, who affirms that you will grow rich by thinking it, these are probably not the books for you.  For these titles critically examine the world of self-help and the cult of positive thinking.  If you’re like me who drank the frothy punch promising happiness and felt a bit woozy, as if the magic elixir is nothing more than sugar-coated tap water sold for champagne prices, these books shed light on why that is.

The three books above:  Bright-Sided:  How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books, 2009), The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (Faber & Faber, Inc. 2012), and Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, 2014) are three different approaches to critically examining the positive thinking industry/cult.

By way of full disclosure, I was immersed in this world for about six or seven years, through a New Thought church that I attended in the 1990’s.  Prior to my discovery of this church, it had a larger-than-life founder/figurehead who had died – or made his transition, as was the parlance of the community, after all, ‘died’ is such a negative term – a couple years prior.  Noted inspirational speakers such as Wayne Dyer, Les Brown, Louise Hay, and Og Mandino frequently appeared for a Sunday service, a Wednesday night program, or a Saturday seminar.  The church underwent a shift when Marianne Williamson was named the church’s spiritual leader.  The selfish interests of manifesting individual prosperity shifted to a liberal, go-beyond-the-walls-of-the-church approach, changing the dynamics of the congregation.  It sent the “spirituality is me” entrepreneurials fleeing, and the more liberal, “beloved community” oriented seekers flocking.  Conflicts between the Board of Directors (who hired her) and Ms. Williamson became too much of a distraction and I left when I discovered a Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit – something I had been seeking since the late 1980’s.  I met some wonderful people there and cannot say that I did not learn anything from my experience.

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Barbara Ehrenreich entered the positive-thinking community after having been diagnosed with breast cancer.  As she entered “the pink ribbon culture,” she encountered the phenomenon that inspired the writing of Bright-Sided.

As an experiment, I posted a statement on the Konen.org message board, under the subject line “Angry,” briefly listing my complaints about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies, environmental carcinogens, and most daringly, “sappy pink ribbons.”  I received a few words of encouragement in my fight with the insurance company, which had taken the position that my biopsy was a kind of optional indulgence, but mostly a chorus of rebukes.  “Suzy” wrote to tell me “I really dislike saying you have a bad attitude towards all of this but you do, and it’s not going to help you in the least”  “Mary” was a bit more tolerant, writing, “Barb, at this time in your life, it’s so important to put all your energies toward a peaceful, if not happy, existence.  Cancer is a rotten thing to have happen and there are no answers for any of us as to why.  But to live your life, whether you have one more year or 51, in anger and bitterness is such a waste…I hope you can find some peace.”

Bright-Sided, page 32.

As she concludes the first chapter, Ehrenreich felt the same as I did from my experience at the church.  “Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual.  What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift,’ was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”  (Page 43-44).

Ehrenreich researches and exposes the history of this ideological force, how it infiltrated the business culture, and posits how it crashed the economy.  After reading the 206 pages of this book my neck was sore from all the nodding in agreement with Ms. Ehrenreich.

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Where Barbara Ehrenreich revealed the harmful societal effects of positive thinking, Oliver Burkeman gives us The Antidote.  Burkeman starts us off in San Antonio, Texas.  In the professional basketball team’s stadium,  Burkeman takes us inside a popular business motivational seminar – Get Motivated!  He starts with self-help guru, author of over thirty-five books on positive thinking, and founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed out of glass, Dr. Robert H. Shuller.  The octogenarian is hyping the crowd by claiming to reveal the secret to happiness.  What does this sage offer?  “Cut…the word ‘impossible’ out of your life.  Cut it out!  Cut it out forever!”  (The Antidote, pg. 2).  Burkeman offers a different path.

This book is the record of a journey through the world of the ‘backwards law,’ and of the people, living and dead, who have followed the negative path to happiness.  My travels took me to the remote woodlands of Massachusetts, where I spent a week on a silent meditation retreat; to Mexico, where death is not shunned but celebrated; and to the desperately impoverished slums outside Nairobi, where insecurity is the unignorable reality of every day life.  I met modern-day Stoics, specialists in the art of failure, professional pessimists, and other advocates of the power of negative thinking, many of whom proved surprisingly jolly.  But I began in San Antonio because I wanted to experience the cult of optimism at its most extreme.  (Pg. 10-11).

Burkeman covers Buddhism in the third chapter “The Storm Before the Calm: A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively.”  I never considered Buddhism as ‘negative thinking.’  Burkeman guides us through a brief history of Zen and meditation in America, arriving at American Zen Buddhist and psychiatrist Barry Magid’s book, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness who argued against the use of meditation as tool to make yourself better or happier.  “The point, instead, was to learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ a more profound peace might result.”  (pg 54-55).  Burkeman then undertook a week-long retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in central Massachusetts.  Almost ten hours of the sixteen hour days were meditation – either sitting or walking.  He recounts his experience during the retreat, settling in and enjoying meditation by the end of the fourth day.  But then, it hit the fan.

Without my noticing the precise moment of transition, the silence of the meditation hall became a combination of courtroom and torture chamber.  For hours, I was attacked by barrages of negative thoughts and their associated emotions – anxious ones, guilty ones, worried ones, hostile, bored, impatient and even terrified ones – as if they had all been gathering just out of sight, for years, waiting for this moment to pounce.  Above all, they were self-critical.  I was suddenly aware – and somehow all at once – of countless occasions in my life on which I had behaved badly towards other people; my parents, my sister, friends, girlfriends, or colleagues…they filled me with sorrow…The sorrow that accompanied these realisations, from a Buddhist point of view, is a good thing; it is the fertile soil in which compassion can take root.  (Pg. 71-72).

Burkeman contends that the Buddhist’s practice is a negative approach to happiness because of its radical perspective that “it is rarely wise to struggle to change the weather.” (Pg. 73).

One chapter critically denounces goal-setting, another argues the benefits of insecurity and embracing your failures; and another on death as a way of life.  To sum up Burkeman’s “negative” approach to life would be that one should not pursue happiness as a goal to achieve.  Instead, happiness is found by living in awe, now.

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Jessica  Lamb-Shapiro’s observation of the self-help/positive thinking world is different from Ehrenreich and Burkeman.  She traveled with her father, a child psychologist and parenting author, and participated in the demonstration and selling of the products he promoted, since the age of six.  In this memoir, Lamb-Shapiro relates her experiences within the self-help industry.  She opens our eyes to the facade of Mark Victor-Hansen’s uber-expensive seminars (which her father received a full refund for), witnessing attendee’s blind confidence in their guru’s profoundly ludicrous schemes.  She criticizes self-help books The Rules and The Secret, and how “experts” in this industry more often than not fit the Mark Twain definition of an expert – “an ordinary fellow from another town.”  The chapters on addressing fear and grief – as Lamb-Shaprio confronts her fear of flying and the grief of losing her mother under unknown circumstances when Lamb-Shapiro was an infant – demonstrate some of the positives she experienced.

Unlike Ehrenreich and Burkeman who dissect the cult of optimism, Lamb-Shapiro’s personal journey reveals the positives and negatives of the self-help industry.  I agree with her analysis that the blind faith of the followers holds massive potential for abuse.  There are no checks and balances to these advisers.  And, like most cults, their systems discourage interaction with other points of view.  I experienced this firsthand.  I still had contact with a couple of friends from the New Thought church as I questioned it and after I left it, and they fled from me like I had the plague.  One in particular seemed to have taken a hostile attitude toward me.  Lamb-Shapiro, like Ehrengraf and Burkeman, echo my experience of the cult of optimism, which reinforces opportunity for the individual over responsibility to the community.  “At what point does looking out for number-one stop being a wholesome American value and start making you an asshole?” (Promise Land Pg. 207).

Obviously, everyone has to find what works for them, and if the culture of self-help and positive thinking works for you, that’s fantastic.  I once immersed myself into this world of positive-thinking.  But enough of its unhealthy water filled my lungs to the point where I had to flee from it for the real world in order to survive.  These three books have become favorites of mine for detailing and exposing what I was feeling those six or seven years.  Unfortunately, because corporate interests have found positive thinking to be beneficial to stifling dissension within the workplace, isolating the employee, and playing to his or her personal greed, so many more people will suffer.  And some may explode, like Harvey Holroyd who expressed true feelings of grief at Sam’s (Bill Macy) funeral, (performed as a Native American ritual which Sam would have hated) and was tranquilized by Leonard.  After reviving, Stokeley (Anthony Battaglia) provides Harvey with insight, like Ehrenreich, Burkeman, and Lamb-Shapiro do in their books.

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