Some aspects of self-help and personal development have come under criticism recently.
A specific area that’s received a lot of attention is the phenomenon of “positive thinking”. Some believe that this area has become a “positivity cult”, creating in its believers and practitioners an unwillingness to acknowledge lousy days, depression, loss, and other “downs” in the ongoing ups and downs that human beings experience during their adventures in the physical world.
After a diagnosis of breast cancer, Ehrenreich entered conventional medical treatment, and experienced chemotherapy, radiation, and other traditional approaches. However, on the psychological and support side, she also encountered what she characterized as a “positive thinking cult”. Many breast cancer patients did not feel (or refused to admit) anger, frustration and other negative emotions, preferring to repeat positive thinking mantras and operate in what Ehrenreich described as a mindset of of denial and avoidance. In contrast, she characterizes her genuine anger and frustration with cancer as the driving force behind her will to recover.
Curious about her experience in cancer treatment, she began to investigate other areas in the self-help industry where positive thinking principles had made major inroads – for example, churches promoting prosperity theology, academic departments creating programs in positive psychology, career counseling, and motivational seminars.
Certainly, a tyranny of positive thinking is in itself may not actually be very positive. Telling people that they “should” smile more, or be happier, or think more positively often has the opposite effect. After all, who likes to be made wrong by others, for any reason?
So, given that we all seek to be happier in our lives, what’s the solution?
Is negativity the answer?
Of course, going too far in the opposite direction is not really a good idea either. A reader, “Lisa” declared to me in an email discussion that anger was more effective in motivating people (in this case, to take effective action as an activist).
No, I donâ€™t happen to believe someone is as good an activist when they are happy. I donâ€™t believe that, because I have observed that happiness is essentially a state of emotional homeostasis. In other words, itâ€™s a state of mental balance. What is balance? Youâ€™ve basically come to rest, everything is in its place and you have no reason to move unless you feel like it.
Activism requires a sense of urgency. What happy person feels urgency? Activism requires initiative. What is there to have initiative about if you already have what you want?
Declaring negative emotions “better” (or at least, more likely to inspire action) than positive ones is hardly a useful change from the “positivity cult” that Ehrenreich was criticizing in Bright-Sided. It’s the same ignorance – the only difference is that it’s flipped in the opposite direction.
It’s possible to live in a state of powerful and abiding happiness, and yet to have the will to take decisive action. The so-called happiness described by “Lisa”, above, is more like a state of moping bovine apathy than any experience of happiness that I have ever had. When people are really feeling happy, they generally want to engage with the world, to give their energy to others and to share their gifts as much as they can. This is the real source of transformational power, not anger.
While anger is not what I’d describe as an inspiring starting point for effective action, I’m not a fan of naive, groundless positivity either. Denial of the “shadow side” is not an effective way to handle situations or get things done in the world. After all, any solution that’s really effective is almost certainly firmly aligned with reality.
My advice? Use spiritual and psychological technologies like yoga, meditation, NLP, prayer, breathwork, or journaling, in order to design for yourself the mental state that you want to experience. Or get some coaching or therapy if you think that help from a professional would be beneficial to your inner work.
And then go out and work on creating the world that you want to experience in the future, whether that means building a business, doing activism and non-profit work, teaching children, or whatever else you have in mind.
But never make your own peace of mind or your inner well-being conditional on getting some kind of “outcome” or “results” in the world. And don’t depend on a particular emotion or state – whether it be anger or happiness – to motivate you to work toward those results.
So what’s the solution?
Here’s the thing – it’s not that positive thinking is the problem, or negative thinking is the problem. The fact is that thinking itself is the problem. Fortunately, it’s also the solution.
Our thoughts create our experience of reality. Happy thoughts tend to lead to happy feelings, anxious thoughts tend to lead to anxious feelings, and so forth. And yet, for all the obviousness of such a statement, many people don’t realize this.
It’s not so much that people “should” have all positive thoughts, all the time – as though that were even possible. It’s more that when people realize that their thoughts create their experience of reality, then they can recognize the essential unreality of what they are perceiving. People don’t perceive the world directly – they perceive their thoughts about the world.
As a result, in an elevated state of consciousness, a person is able to see things as they really are. They see through the reflexive and illusory nature of most of their thoughts, and exist in a balanced and peaceful state that is untouched by the rapid up and down of the monkey mind’s thought-stream. This is the true state of abiding happiness – not a temporary “high” or short-lived excitement, but an enduring space of equanimity and inner peace.
On the other hand, in a lower state of consciousness, a person treats the involuntary stream of thoughts as something real. A positive thought is experienced as something to be chased down and held (“it feels good!”), and a negative thought is treated as something to be denied, avoided, or pushed away (“it feels bad!”). From the Buddhist standpoint, craving and aversion are two sides of the same coin – and the roots of suffering.
A feeling of anxiety or sadness is much more bearable when it’s accompanied by the realization that it was just caused by anxious or sad thoughts, that it’s temporary, and that it’s not something intrinsic or real. And on the other side, a feeling of elation or excitement can be appreciated with gratitude, with the recognition that it too is impermanent, and that clinging to those feelings will be painful and not get the results desired.
In either case, from the higher perspective of an elevated consciousness, both “good” and “bad” feelings can be seen from the enduring standpoint of intrinsic security, inner peace, and balanced mind – the standpoint that understands and experiences all thoughts and feelings as impermanent, and clings to none. From this point of view, a person can most effectively and directly take the actions that they want to take, work to change the things that they want to change, and create the things that they want to create.
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