if you focus on the good…

“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:

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.

17 thoughts on “if you focus on the good…

  1. While I agree with what you're saying, I think you're missing my point (or, likely here, I didn't make it clear). There's a difference between hope and “the power of positive thinking.” There's the Protestant work ethic that's very different than the Mary Baker Eddy style of “if you think it, it will come.”

    Before the 19th century, there was the general sense that life will always be hard but if you work hard enough you can be successful. So, what you're saying fits. But within that perspective there isn't the denial that the “laws of attraction” have established in the culture. It goes beyond the lie of using your own bootstraps. It says that if you “stay positive” enough your bootstraps'll lift for you. Or, more relevant to what angers me about the philosophy, if you're unhappy about life you're doing something wrong.

    The stuff you're describing is problematic, of course. But I take issue with the notion that the “power of positive thinking” is at the root of the USA. In fact, my patriotism is so much stronger now because I realize that the reason we were founded was because people realized that we 1) should all be free, and 2) the common welfare/common good is the best way to make freedom possible for the most people. Really, very different than the “make life happen the way you want it if you pray hard enough and smile the crap out of things.”

  2. I love what Grapes said. I just fucking HATE that about this country/culture, that horrible Calvinist idea that the people who have made it are somehow more worthy, “in grace,” when it's just often a matter of dumb luck/connections and nothing to do with working harder than the average … and people who are really suffering kinda deserve it, esp the little babies. Gak.

    (LOL at the chosen thing. :))

    But I that's a separate thing from the fact that is grating to hear that “silver lining” shit when bad stuff hits. No, not everything has a bright side, some things JUST SUCK and we don't have to smile to make other people feel better.

    Never thought about that idea that our society makes it a taboo of sorts to admit we're not happy 24/7, but it's true. Good to point that out. Wtf? Weird! We saw that on Usenet when in a flamewar everyone would point out that they were laughing and happy while they posted awful shit every 10 minutes, hysterical. :) If we're not happy, as Aileen pointed on on my FB post, then we must go to the doc and get medicated!

    When did it become unacceptable here to admit to being unhappy? But it is. And I think it's cuz of what Grapes wrote … if we admit it, we're saying that the grace thingie has passed us by and we aren't worthy. Even if we don't believe it at all and feel free of religious gloppery, the brainwashing has worked an eensy bit and made us feel we have to fake the happiness part at least, even if we're not sure why. I think this is why!

  3. For me, I'm thankful for the message of positive thinking. It empowers me to continually evaluate my circumstances and choose how I'm going to react, instead of being a victim to external forces. When bad things happen, yes, it's disappointing and sometimes depressing. However, even in the most trying of times, I can always find something for which to be grateful and appreciative, which makes me happier.

    Ironically, when I give in to unhappiness, I'm less motivated to actually change the circumstances that have caused my reaction. But, when I fight to find the positive aspects, my happiness actually acts as a motivator to make the necessary changes.

    Call me Pollyana, if you want, but I just don't see the point of choosing unhappiness. I don't see the constructive aspects of this feeling. It's just too… vague, I guess.

  4. This good attitude business you speak of is, of course, at the very root of the whole American dream, which seems on the one hand to say that any child could grow up to be President, but is also at the same time saying that anyone who isn't President only has himself to blame.

    It is a particularly Christian viewpoint (the Jews believe themselves to be the chosen people, but they don't believe they were chosen for anything good). It's also particularly Calvinistic, in that it defines one's salvation according to one's acts. Christ told people they would be saved by the grace of God, whether they deserved it or not, by a simple act of faith. The church interpreted that to mean that you could only be saved if you worked to make yourself worthy.

    Though as you point out, while that might on the face of it seem like a liberationist theology, allowing anyone to be saved, or become President, in fact it's the opposite. St Paul's letter to the Romans (3:23) tells us what should be the basis of all Christian humility: all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. All.

    What the Protestant churches have done, and the American can-do philosophy is the crystallisation of this, is to tell us that all those who didn't work right, or hard enough, fall short of God's glory. But there are those who do. From there, you're only one step away from a monarchy, which in terms of Romans 3:23 is the least Christian system you could ever dream of.

  5. Charlie, I might be being unclear here. What I'm saying is that finding authentic gratitude is different than “always finding the positive.”

    However, what you're describing does verge on the problematic form of attitude I'm talking about. You say, “when I give in to unhappiness.” Why not feel the feelings you have rather than try and formulate what you ought to be feeling?

    I've lived with depression, and I take medication for it. I understand the kind of depression that is immobilizing. However, there are times and places where the reasonable response is being immobilized by depression no matter how inconvenient. Say, the death of a child or slaughter of a community.

    I'd never call someone Pollyana for appreciating a joyful attitude. In fact, if you read nothing else, read Ehrenreich's final paragraphs of her intro section I linked to up there. A life of smiles, laughs, joy, and hugs is the goal for me as it is for her. But authentically so, not “because we should be happy and have a positive attitude” (i.e., don't complain).

  6. Heather, I think I say “when I give in to unhappiness” I'm coming from a viewpoint that our feelings are indeed choices, in that we choose how we interpret our world and the things surrounding us. Our interpretation may be the most important variable in how we respond to circumstances. So, the more conscious control we assert over how we perceive experiences, the more sway we have in how we respond.

    Sure, I can feel unhappiness when things don't work out the way I want them, but I have to ask myself, “to what end?” Why feel unhappiness, when I could make some shifts to feel happiness? For me, appreciation and gratitude are steps I take to get to happiness.

    Yes, the death of a child and the slaughter of a community both deserve immense and profound grief; I'm not arguing that the recognition of legitimate loss over which we have no control is not a place for mourning. Even in these situations, though, an individual has a great deal of power when choosing how to react to these situations.

    Which gets me to Grapes… I think we approach the world from fundamentally different places. I have to personally reject the idea that my life is simply a pawn of external forces. I believe that people do have control over their lives, and to think otherwise really is a reason for despair. If we are not in control, what hope is there for real change, personal achievement, or inspiration?

    For me, despair is far from a sane reaction, because it removes the possibility for change and shackles us to our current circumstances. With hope, though, I believe a person has the chance of creating change and improving their circumstances.

  7. I was totally with you up 'til your silly last line.

    Life can be joyful even in the most dire of circumstances, but that doesn't mean (as you said) bad shit doesn't happen.

    So, to sum my personal opinion up: gratitude is a choice and living in joy is also a choice and both are great choices (I choose them most of the time) but life happens and I can't stop it and when crap happens if I pretend otherwise it only punishes me. The culture that we live in today (so different than even our “founding fathers'” day) says being sad, disheartened, angry are all weak and harmful positions.

    The external world does have an impact on us and pretending otherwise is dangerous. It causes us to blame ourselves or others for bad stuff as if we just weren't thinking positive enough.

    I'm not able to “sum it up” baby crawling on me. Now, BABIES, they get it. It is unjust, Althea, that I'm not helping you up here onto the daybed. You're RIGHT to be distressed that I'm not listening! :-)

  8. Charlie, you wrote: ” I have to personally reject the idea that my life is simply a pawn of external forces. I believe that people do have control over their lives, and to think otherwise really is a reason for despair. If we are not in control, what hope is there for real change, personal achievement, or inspiration?”

    Ah, but I disagree. We don't have control over our lives. We really don't. We have control over our perceptions, true, but that's it.

  9. I'd call it Pollyanna-ism. You are at the mercy of external forces, and most if not all of the choices you think you have are illusory. The most pernicious aspect of the thing Heather is talking about, and I did get it even if I didn't address it square-on, is that people are led to think they're in control when in fact they aren't. The effect that has is to make you take credit for things you didn't do (like be born in a rich western country, with the impact that has on the immigration question) and make you feel guilty for things you didn't do or couldn't prevent. So for instance Americans are forced not only to soldier on through incurable cancer but do so with a smile on their faces, while I, Ford forbid it should ever come to that, could go to my doctor and ask him to fix me up with a blessèd release.

    Sometimes the only sane reaction to life is despair, Charlie. It doesn't help you, and it doesn't help those around you, to pretend otherwise.

  10. Unreasonable or not, hope and optimism lend strength, and in dire straits, it is the difference between life and death.

    This is a reason why Christianity is so successful even while it takes on so many forms. It is a reason why America is so successful. It is a reason why I am not. I don't go for the false cheer and I tend to view most of my actions ultimately as failures. Because they are. Don't try to talk me out of it.

    But I appreciate that others can lift themselves up and with the power of positive thinking, improve their own and others' lives.

    If it is the Corporation's position that my failure to climb the ladder is my own fault, how can they possibly be wrong? Of course if I was someone else, I would succeed. I am not, and it isn't the Man's fault. If anyone's, it is my own for failing to adapt and change in the right way. Life, including corporate life, is Darwinian. We are not helpless before the storm, but surely a bad attitude makes us more so.

    Capitalism is Darwinian also. That's why it works, and why so many suffer under it. Indeed, so many suffer under capitalism, I would venture to say that the only system that is worse is, well, any of the others.

    In other words, life is still hard, and it always will be.

  11. I take issue with so many things you've said, Don, my head is about to explode. Can't deal with it now.

    One very, very quick thing. I'm won't tell someone who thinks they are a failure that they are not. I don't deal with self-pity well. Ain't got time for that shit.

    So glad you read/replied. Likely I'll come back with more thoughts. But, like I said, head exploding with disagreements or nausea or annoyance or shock. (Said with affection, of course.)

  12. Don, I figured out my entire response to you. It's been going through my head all afternoon. The way you describe your perspective? Here's what it makes me think:

    “Hook, line, and sinker.”

  13. We both believe in people as individuals who depend on others. My life led me to crystallize this into capitalism as I understand it. Yours led you more to a socialist frame. If this means I drank the Kool-Aid, then it only means your Kool-Aid was from a different cup.

    (Hint: My capitalism is not the big American corporation kind.)

    The failure stuff was just the mood I was in. I wasn't fishing for reassurance. Even so,

    We don't have control over our lives

    is no improvement.

  14. I'm no longer anti-capitalist. I'm anti-greed.

    And, I call absolute bullshit on the idea that I've drunk any Kool-aid. My opinions change far too often to be of one mind. I actually think the same is true for you, too. The response you had to my blog post, though, was Orwellian and creepy. You've been sold a bill of goods, dude.

    As for “we don't have control over our lives” relating to “I'm a failure” — I see no connection. I'd be interested to see how you see them as comparable.

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