Laughter emoji flooded our group WhatsApp as one friend asked: “Are these personally targeted at me or just your average millennial Instagram user?!?!” Above she had posted a screenshot of a sponsored ad for a book entitled How To Stop Worrying And Start Living which, as far as I can tell, is a positive thinking manifesto from the same family as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. “Lol,” another friend replied, “you’ve just clearly been liking too many posts on My Therapist Says mate.”
On more than one occasion I have been tempted to add books about positive thinking to my online shopping basket. It’s appealing, isn’t it? The idea that the key to success in life, love and work is to constantly cultivate and tenaciously maintain an optimistic outlook.
I think of this often. I think about it before I turn the lights out to go to sleep, as I resist the urge to doomscroll. Have I ever listened to a positive pop anthem like “Roar” by Katy Perry before an important work meeting and genuinely tried to channel its positive affirmations?
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter
Dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar
No comment. Have I had conversations with friends in which we’ve named the negative voices that burrow into our brains like worms in an attempt to banish them once and for all? No comment. Have I ever inadvertently quoted Rhona Byrne and texted someone having a hard time the words “everything is going to be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end” because I didn’t know what else to say? Also no comment.
Positive thinking is nothing new. The hopeful glass-half-full adage has been around for decades. But somehow in recent years positive thinking has become less limited to the throwaway Pollyanna-ish aphorisms offered up by your nan when you’re stressing out over your GCSEs and more a lifestyle in its own right.
Today, positive thinking is a form of composite secular quasi-spirituality. Typified by books like The Secret or the one recommended to my friend by Instagram and a zillion podcasts hosted by self-appointed thought leaders with zero qualifications, it comprises self-help, mystical (but scientifically questionable) ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ energy and cherry-picks the more appealing bits of Buddhism – namely the law of cause and effect (aka karma) which, at its most watered down, is that positive thoughts and actions engender happiness while negative thoughts and actions lead you down a one-way street to unhappiness.
Byrne’s mantra, her secret, is “ask, believe, receive”. Her idea, in a nutshell, is that by thinking positive thoughts you can attract good things. Byrne sees this as an inevitable and irrefutable universal law, like self-help gravity.
But the logical extension of this argument is where it starts to unravel, particularly when placed under the microscope of the global coronavirus pandemic which has, among many things, reminded us of all that we cannot control. Positive thinking and manifesting are to spirituality what individualism is to conservative politics: the idea that we are all somehow personally responsible for problems which are structural, national and global.
As we live through the greatest economic shock in recent history and feel our minds sputtering and buffering to process what it all might mean, this only seems more and more absurd by the day.
Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg and is the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. As she sees it, there is a healthy threshold for positivity and positive thinking and, right now, culturally, we’ve crossed the line. “The truth,” she tells me, “is that positive thinking can actually hinder us.”
Two decades ago, Gabriele conducted a study in which she looked at positive thinking among women enrolled in weight loss programmes. This is a particularly interesting area because the diet industrial complex has made policing women’s bodies and weight loss big business. It’s also something Byrne touches on in The Secret when she writes: “The first thing to know is that if you focus on losing weight, you will attract back having to lose more weight, so get ‘having to lose weight’ out of your mind. It’s the very reason why diets don’t work.” Instead, she encourages her readers to imagine their ideal weight, to think positive things about themselves and their bodies.
Having put this theory to the test, Gabriele can confirm it didn’t work. She asked the women enrolled in weight loss programmes to imagine open-ended scenarios about how they might fare and rate how positive or negative they felt. When she followed up with them a year later she found that the more positively women had imagined themselves doing, the less weight they had actually lost.
Since then, Gabriele and her colleagues have conducted multiple follow-up studies with a range of people, old and young. They’ve looked at university students who want to go on a date, people having hip replacements and students who want to get the best possible grades.
In terms of mental health, the more positively people fantasised into the future, the better they feel right now, in that moment, but the more depressed they get over time.Gabriele Oettingen
The results every time, she says affirmatively over the phone from her New York office, have been clear: the imagined fantasy of a positive outcome did not guarantee it in reality. “It was the same for patients on the eve of surgery. The more positively they dreamed about recovery, the less well they did recover. It was the same in academia. The more positively university graduates fantasised about an easy transition into work life, the fewer dollars they were earning two years later. It was the same at school. The more positively students fantasised about excelling in any exam, the less well they did,” she explains. “It was even the same for romantic relationships. The more positively people fantasised about getting together with a person they like, the less likely it is that they actually will start romantic relationships.”
More than this, Gabriele has also found that positive thinking can actually be harmful to our mental health long-term. The problem with this particular brand of self-help spirituality is that when you turn the focus onto yourself, you become the problem. You’re what’s wrong with every difficult situation you find yourself in. Everything bad that happens in your life is your fault. You’re the one who ruins your relationships by not being grateful enough to be in them, it has nothing to do with the fact that they’re actually just really hard. You’re the one who can’t buy a house because you can’t see the housing affordability crisis in a positive light. You aren’t as successful as you’d hoped you’d be, not because wages have stagnated in recent years and fallen in real terms but because you just didn’t manifest hard enough.
Does the current cultural obsession with positivity worry Gabriele, I wonder? Because it worries me. “I’m a scientist,” she says, “so if I look at the data then, yes, I think I should be worried about this. If people actually want to implement their dreams and satisfy their needs then this year – because of the pandemic and all that’s happening – positive thinking is not the right way to go about it. If they want to have a short-term bandage on their mood then it might work to think positively but, long-term, we’ve found that it doesn’t work.”
Part of the problem, Gabriele tells me, is that positive thinking can actually have a really detrimental effect on our wellbeing. “In terms of mental health, the more positively people fantasised into the future, the better they feel right now, in that moment, but the more depressed they get over time.” This, she adds, is because “we have found that when people think positively and manifest the future they want in this way, they feel that they have already accomplished it. In their mind, they’re already there. They have already experienced feelings of success and that makes them relaxed.”
Now, none of this is to say that we should indulge in the stresses and anxieties we all feel day in, day out or, indeed, seek help when they overwhelm us. But it does suggest that in some situations we do actually need some impetus to act, to go out into the world and fix something that may not be working for us.
“Positive thinking about the future can actually zap our energy,” Gabriele continues, “but we need that energy to actually realise the positive future that we want. I am not suggesting that we forget about positive thinking and think negatively, because that doesn’t work either. Positive fantasies and daydreams come from our needs, they come from what we are lacking. So we can’t dismiss them but what we can do is put energy into them by testing them against the obstacles of reality.”
This approach is known in psychology as mental contrasting. “Mental contrasting works,” Gabriele says, “because it gives an idea direction by helping us to say ‘Okay, I’m not there yet’ and think of ways to overcome that obstacle.”
Positive thinking is a mental cul-de-sac because you cannot make yourself completely wrong, gloss over that with some affirmations and expect everything around you to suddenly be alright.
However, in the context of our current climate of COVID, concern and economic uncertainty, Gabriele is quick to note that “it could well be that the obstacle we face is so formidable or costly or just doesn’t fit into our lives at the moment. So then what we can do is we can adjust the wish or postpone the dream for a better point in time or, simply, just let it go.”
It is endlessly fascinating to me that millennial women – a demographic which has been particularly hard hit by the 2008 financial crash, the housing crisis and now the pandemic – seem to turn towards this particular brand of pop spirituality when they feel overwhelmed. The Women’s Budget Group has found that there is not a single place in the country where it is affordable for a woman to buy or rent a home. The Resolution Foundation has found that key workers are disproportionately likely to be female.
This pandemic has shown us just how gendered inequality is in Britain today. Women are underpaid across the board, undervalued and, on average, performing 60% more invisible but vital labour such as caring, cooking and cleaning alongside their jobs than men are.
Surely the allure of quasi-spiritual positive thinking can be no coincidence. When your entire adult life has been shaped by social, political and economic forces which reinforce your relative lack of significance and influence in the world, who wouldn’t be drawn to the idea that you can, for want of a better phrase, Take Back Control?
If we take anything away from coronavirus and all the havoc it has wreaked, though, it should be this: our society wasn’t equal before this crisis and that’s why it feels so unequal now. We can sit at home, alone, manifesting or we can get together, go out into the world and make our voices heard.
And if we are going to get spiritual about it, one of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that all of life is suffering from the moment you are born until the moment you die. That’s not negative thinking, it’s reality. Things will always have the capacity to go wrong. You won’t always get the job, no matter how much Katy Perry you blast. Living is figuring out how to navigate difficulties and disappointments realistically and with compassion so that you can overcome them. Positive thinking is a mental cul-de-sac because you cannot constantly make yourself completely wrong, gloss over that with some affirmations and expect everything around you to suddenly be alright.
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