“If you focus on the good, the good increases.” This is a line from the recovery circles I frequented in the late 90s. Since then it’s also been my life experience. In my day-to-day living, if I focus on the good in life (what I’m grateful for, what’s going well, etc.) the rest of my world feels and seems better, brighter, lighter. The flow of the dream of life (as in row, row, row your boat) is gentle and lovely.
It’s been my experience that I can choose how I view life and my experience of it changes accordingly. However, what Ehrenreich gets to—and there are so many deeply profound levels where this impacts us as a society I’m still hesitating addressing it in such a shallow form—is that there is a culture of “happiness” that glosses over reality. This culture of “positivity” is not simply a psycho-babble subset of our larger community but has become the dominant force. In fact, the corporations and mega-churches of faux-happy are not only dominating, they are damaging us.
When someone loses their [job, loved one, home, health, security] there are many reasonable responses. Those reasonable responses include (but are not limited to) rage, depression, anger, sadness, hopelessness, fear, and desperation to name a few. I’m not suggesting the world has to stop for every difficult experience. Of course this isn’t the case. I am suggesting (and on a cursory level I’m summarizing some of Ehrenreich’s points) our society has been force fed lies. Starting around the time of Mary Baker Eddy and blossoming in our dysfunctional capitalist system, “happiness” has become a requirement. When bad things happen, it’s our fault because all that we need to be fulfilled in life is a positive attitude.
Corporations took this lie and ran with it. There’s a big money being made in corporate life pushing the “keep a good attitude” bullshit. Keep the masses fooled into thinking if their wages are too low, their benefits not good, their working conditions lousy, well, if they feel like complaining they must have a bad attitude. Complaining about real shitty situations is seen as a weakness that ought to be overcome with some positive thinking. Positive thinking. The phrase alone makes me want to hit something. The damage done because people believe in “the power of positive thinking” is obscene.
People have become conditioned or trained to believe that finding problems, seeing bad behaviors, or uncovering near- or actually criminal behavior is “causing trouble.” If we have positive thoughts, the world will be a positive place. It’s absurd, of course.
For example, The New York Times had the story about the CIA beating prisoners to death in Afghanistan but they held the story for a full month because the editors “didn’t want to believe something so terrible.” (Quoted from Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side.”) Even then, the story ran on page 14 not on page one. I believe a great part of the reason the terrorist attacks on 9/11 weren’t stopped was because of this same kind of fluff-filled “it couldn’t be so bad” kind of positive thinking. The pieces of the puzzle were there, but people didn’t see it. (That opinion of mine came from a book I read recently, too, but I can’t remember which one! Could’ve also been The Dark Side…)
I would argue that even activists like the Tea Party people are consumed by this same lie, that good things will come to those with the right attitude. The disconnect between who is fucking them over (it’s the corporate world and their connections to government, not government itself) comes in great part, I believe, from the success corporations have had convincing mainstream society that their success could be our success. They pretend that their success comes from their hard working, positive attitude having, good old American gumption. The Tea Party people as far as I can tell believe this lie. They believe (as the strict father model of morality stresses) everyone has a fair shot in life and if they just work hard enough, they can end up on top. Utter and complete bullshit. And, speaking of James Dobson types…
When it comes to the religious right, the Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians, I found a blog post that does much better justice to how this power of positive thinking crushes those poor souls:
Many Christians believe that Jesus is the answer for everything. All you need to do is accept him as your savior and pray when in need. When Jesus (the invisible, magical and wish granting friend) doesn’t answer a prayer the error can never be with the doctrine or dogma but rather it resides in the individual who doesn’t have enough faith or hasn’t prayed hard enough. … Both the conservative Christian and law of attraction devotee must continually purge themselves searching for either sin or negative thinking. But rest assured both are not allowed to question the doctrine or dogma because this is just more evidence of their own shortcomings. Once the idea that the doctrine is perfect, flawless and divine has been planted the believer has only one place to examine and deconstruct when something goes wrong: his or her own mind and soul. Critical thinking in both cases is portrayed as dangerous and harmful. Although, ironically, members of each group seem to be able to employ a healthy skepticism in regards to all of those other religious beliefs that are wrong. But when it comes to their own “truth” they shut down their minds, abandon critical analysis and defend their belief with a passion. Anyone who criticizes the real doctrine is unsaved, a negative thinker, dangerous, lost or misguided.
Really, though, Be Scofield, the author of the blog post I just quoted here does a fine job articulating most of the thoughts I wanted to share. In fact, if you are interested in what all this “Bright-sided” talk has got me worked up about, check out these two links:
- Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive
Thinking Has Undermined America (excerpt from the book’s introduction), and,
- Tikkun Daily Blog’s When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion: How “The Secret” and Law of Attraction Poison Spirituality
As for the connection between my own life experience, that focusing on the good makes the good increase, I know this is true. The difference is focusing on reality (my children are great examples of this) versus a lie (if I just “stay positive” money, love, and happiness will arrive at my door). A positive attitude (ugh, that phrase makes me cringe, but I don’t mean it in the way it’s used these days) is a choice. If I focus on the fact that my back is aching, I’m exhausted, and I ought to go to bed, I won’t finish this blog post. If I focus on the fact that I’ve been having fun thinking about this stuff so long and it gets me excited and I want to share it, then I find the energy to get it done. There is a difference between authentic gratitude and the “power of positive thinking.” One (authentic gratitude) can color my perspective in a way that motivates me to action. The other (laws of attraction or positive thinking) can quell any negativity and cause self-blame and guilt when I feel the least bit discontent.
I hope some of you will go read the linked articles. Or, better yet, I strongly urge everyone to read Bright-sided itself (there’s an audio book version!). Once I started paying attention to this “laws of attraction” nonsense and “power of positive thinking” bullshit I began to see it everywhere. Everywhere! It’s creating a passive, zombie-like society whose members are content (or, worse, believe they should be content) with Wal-Mart social lives, factory churches force feeding self-blame, and our corporate Big Brother infusing our every waking moment with the lie that we should accept things as they are or everyone will know that we are The Problem.
This is the life the positive thinker laws of attraction Jesus saves those who pray hard enough want us to live. They are winning. It’s time to complain.