Friday, January 8, 2010

Oh Positive!

The 1958 movie South Pacific contains a musical version of the concept of the law of attraction. The naive scene and song really say it all about the secrets of positive thinking.

But the scriptwriters knew what so many followers of new age thinking about attraction don't - it doesn't work. Without spoiling the movie for anyone who might like to see it, I'll just say that things don't turn out as they are dreamed.

The movie is about WWII and clearly (for all its upbeat singing and dancing) shows that war is one of those intrusive things that tends to belie the myth of attraction, as do illness, natural disasters, infant mortality, and sexual slavery, to name only a few.

It is a cruel and false position to claim that all victims of such things are in some way responsible for their fates, responsible for not believing that only good things would happen to them. It is the height of arrogance to claim that one somehow knows that the universe gave them what they needed.

Ideas about positive thought and how it can change lives began in the nineteenth century and purveyors of the view made, and continue to make, millions. One of the most well known is the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale; the most recent is the best-selling book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.

Adherents to the positive thinking school of thought usually do not focus on war and pestilence and avoiding them. The gifts the universe gives are more likely to be the same as those discussed in astrology columns - work, relationships, material goods, appearance.

So, if in my heart of hearts, I ask, believe, and allow myself to receive a smaller waistline and a Mercedes, they shall be mine. (I'm wavering between a Mercedes and a Jaguar, perhaps that's why I have neither.)

Is there anything positive about positive thinking? Perhaps a qualified "yes."

Positive attitudes probably help us to work differently towards our goals. If a person constantly says "I can't, won't, shouldn't, am undeserving of," over and over and over, then the likelihood of achieving good outcomes in the areas they can control are pretty unlikely.

 Conversely, a person who thinks positively about goals will probably have a better chance of capitalizing on opportunities if and when they come along. But that hardly seems like such a big secret.

Attitude can make a great difference in how people feel about life, circumstances and themselves, and there are correlations between attitude and good health and recovery from illness.

The danger - and I think that is not too strong a word - comes when we encourage certain feelings and attitudes, but then allow them to substitute for action, for making changes for the better in our own and other people's lives.

Too often, those who do not have our best interests at heart wish to have us "just be positive" about whatever circumstances they hand to us. Too often we believe that a positive attitude is enough, and we give up striving to fix things, or we are too accepting.

Recently, Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America has received a lot of coverage, as it flies in the face of what Ehrenreich calls the "ideology of positivie thinking." Her interview with The Globe and Mail is here.

Ehrenreich's book goes into much detail about the dangers of relying on just a positive attitude and nothing else.

We could all use a good pep talk from time to time. We could all probably do better with more positive feelings. But we absolutely cannot do without accepting reality and doing what we can to make things better for everyone.


* said...

I feel that I live with a guilt of not doing enough to reach out to others, then I feel guilty for feeling guilty, it's a vicious cycle.

Positive thinking is tricky for me, because I start feeling helpless when I am sad or depressed about things that I cannot control.

You're right, issues like work, relationships, material goods etc are more acceptable as they are things that in a sense are within our control.

People who can rely on positive attitude are probably those who have the time to rely on anything at all. Living in war and famine ravaged areas does not even compare.

All all I want is world peace...

Great post.

angelshair said...

Happy new year Chris!
Interesting post! I could never understand why the "Secret" does not brought me the Jaguar ( I had made up my mind for the Jaguar :). View from this angle, it doesn't work, that's true.
But one aspect that I think is worthy in positive thinking is the change that its followers operates on their way to see the world. I think this is simple psychology: If you walk in the world with confidence, you might attract a certain type of person, behavior, etc...On the contrary, if you walk with fear, you might attract another type of person and behavior.
I am not sure if it is the goal of the positive thinking movement to explain the universe, because for sure that would be vain and as you said, arrogant.
But one think I really like in positive thinking is the little power it gives us to change our lives at an individual level(contrary to astrology).
I agree with you that thoughts without actions are meaningless.

ChrisJ said...

To *
World peace is the most elusive - if we all focused on that, who knows?

@angelshair: Yes, I agree about how people look at the world and how that confidence attracts other people with confidence - I just think it's common sense and not a big secret!

angelshair said...

For sure it's not a big secret :))!

ChrisJ said...


I think more people need to use common sense though - in that way maybe common sense is the secret!

Simon said...

I do enjoy visiting your site.Intelligence is better than sex!I am currently listening to Seal, another guy who knows how to write a song.

ChrisJ said...

Thanks, Simon. ;)

Ciss B said...

This is a problem that I see so often today with those who cannot stand those who show signs of depression in those around them. We have strong medicines today that can take away or mostly mask those feelings that we today call depression. Everything seems to have to be so happy and positive...without any basis for those feeling.

Life is hard and it isn't safe either. But we have always felt safe here in the U.S. because there hasn't been a war here since the Civil War - that is until the Trade Center was attacked first in 1993 and then in 2001.

Because of that false sense of security over the years many expected those around them to be happy, after all we were secure and had the best of everything! The need to be constantly positive and happy kept everyone who wasn't drugged and many not feeling at all.

Being positive can be a good thing, but a forced positive because of drugs, or hiding even the smallest amount of pain is totally false and not really living.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, excellent point - I hadn't thought of 911 and how prior was a a sense of security. Just shows that all the positivity doesn't mean we control anything.