The Cult of Positivity


Always be positive!”
Nothing is impossible!”
Be positive and always smile!”
“Positive Energy, Positive Results.”
Positive Minds Live Positive Lives!”
Be Positive, Live Positive, Believe Positive”
Why be negative when you can be positive?”
“Positive Mind, Positive Vibes, Positive Life.”
Think positive, be positive, and positive things will happen!”
“Always be positive. Don’t let negative people hold you back from your dreams.”
“Positive Thoughts Generate Positive Feelings and Attract Positive Life Experiences.”
“The positive thinker sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.”
“The person who sends out positive thoughts activates the world around him positively and draws back to himself positive results.”

It is difficult to argue with either the multiple benefits or the logic of positive thinking. It certainly is not a cult, which involves a group of true believers who put pre-rational groupthink and belief before reason and common sense. Positivity is a style of thinking and a general philosophy of life that is independent of the gurus and charismatic leaders who are generally associated with cults. There is a great deal of research that validates the multiple benefits of positive thinking. Yale University psychologist Becca Levy, PhD found that happy, positive people generally live longer than those who constantly worry or feel bad about aging. Her work suggests that a negative approach to life is similar to smoking or heavy alcohol use. Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage says, “Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving.” “A positive mindset results in 23% greater energy in the midst of stress, 31% higher productivity, 37% higher levels of sales, 40% higher likelihood to be promoted, and improved longevity.” Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. professor of psychology at the University of Chapel Hill, NC and, author of Positivity explains that when people experience positive emotions like love, joy, contentment and gratitude, their minds expand, and they open up to new ideas, are more creative, and are more open minded in general. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD and professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, “My students and I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and more adaptive ways.” “The benefits of happiness include larger social rewards (e.g., more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (e.g., a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain) and even longer life.”

Michael A. Cohen from Harvard University and other researchers completed a study in 2011 that shows that positive emotions lead to resilience, better coping skills and high life satisfaction. “Participants who experienced frequent positive emotions became more satisfied not simply because they were enjoying themselves, but because they built resources that help deal with a wide range of life’s challenges.” “Positive emotions are a powerful source of growth and change, predicting both individuals’ judgments about life and their skills for living well.”

According to the paper The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affects, authored by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, “research has demonstrated that optimistic individuals…use humor and positive reframing, instead of denial, when coping with highly stressful events.” “…rather than deny that bad things happen, positive people instead choose to find ways to cope that allow them to move past the negative experience with the least amount of trauma and the greatest amount of recovery. “Happy individuals tend to have fulfilling marriages and to be more satisfied with their marriages. Indeed, several writers have suggested that satisfaction with marriage and family life is the strongest correlate of happiness.” “Respondents like happy people much more than they like their less-than-happy peers. Happy and satisfied individuals are judged as more physically attractive; more intelligent and competent; more friendly, warm, and assertive; less selfish; more moral; and even more likely to go to heaven.”

Happy people appear to volunteer at higher levels than their unhappy peers for charity and community service, including religious, political, educational, and health-related organizations, indicating that they are  more generous and kind.

In light of all these wonderful and impressive findings, isn’t questioning positivity about as loving as drowning baby kittens or telling a child that she is ugly? Certainly it is easy to dismiss any criticism of positivity as curmudgeonly, an expression of thoughtless, selfish and insensitive skepticism, pessimism and even cynicism. The problem is that if we do not recognize the potential ways that positivity can be abused and exploited then we become the victim of its manipulation by others and, worse, of our own rationalizations. It also does not follow that if we point out the limitations of positive thinking that we are not thereby endorsing skepticism, pessimism or cynicism.

“Success is doing what you want, what you want, where you want, with whom you want as much as you want.” Is this famous quote by motivational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins a statement of courageous positivity or one of such narcissistic grandiosity that it would make Aristippus, the farther of hedonism, blush? Can positive thinking become mass-mind massive delusion, a perceptual cognitive distortion? Perceptual cognitive distortions involve subterranean, mass-mind groupthink. We are so immersed in them that we think we are awake and operating under our own volition when we are sleepwalking through our lives, under the powerful influence of our physical, familial, social, and cultural scripting. A positive perceptual cognitive distortion is a worldview or set of cultural assumptions that is designed to keep us happy, safe, and cooperative. So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what we want? How could something that brings us the multiple positive characteristics mentioned above, characteristics that most of us wish we had more of, possibly have a down side? Could there be a “cult of positivity?” Is there an oppressive culture of mandatory optimism?

Positivity and the happiness it brings is certainly what our parents wanted for us. Did yours tell you, “I don’t want you to be happy!” “Don’t be safe!” “Don’t obey me!” “Don’t be positive that I love you!” “Know you are fortunate to have a parent that cares so much that I punish you for your own good!” You can be sure that everything your parents said to you, positive or negative, was justified in their minds as something that was intended to keep you happy, safe,  cooperative, or all three. The same is true for society. The injunctions, “Pay your taxes,” “Vote,” “Obey laws,” are presented as being for your own benefit and protection. The myths of American exceptionalism, “indispensability,” and the American dream are declared truths that benefit you, the citizen. However, are not the policies, laws, and myths of any society of foremost benefit to those who control society – the politicians, bureaucrats, and plutocrats? Isn’t it in their interest to have you believe that laws and common cultural assumptions, such as democracy and capitalism, are not only positives for you, but that they represent truths rather than groupthink and cognitive distortions? Society as a whole generally agrees and enforces prevailing cultural norms at home and work. Questioning the legitimacy of commonly held beliefs and laws can get you into trouble. Doing so is a threat to any society, because it undercuts the cultural assumptions that it uses to legitimatize itself. Consequently, families, employers, and societies generally provide harsh and swift punishment to those children, employees, and citizens who are not appropriately grateful for the opportunities group membership provide. If scapegoating doesn’t work, there is always incarceration.

To question positive perceptual cognitive distortions is to objectify that mass mind that all of us are embedded in. Doing so is impossible for young children and extraordinarily difficult for most adults, due to their lack of objectivity. When this is combined with the familial, work, and group prohibitions of challenging the prevailing ethic and culture, finding a course of action that is genuinely in your best interest becomes far less likely. This factors conspire to limit your perspective, choices and threat to society in many areas of life. For instance, regarding work and career, is the reason you are not wealthy because you are inwardly resisting in? The consumer culture encourages you to want more cars, a larger home, more television sets, cell phones, and gadgets of all kinds, and positive thinking is there to tell you that you deserve more and can have it if you really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. The regular and conspicuous consumption that society wants from you becomes not only what you think you want and need but deserve.

Harness your powers and you can have anything you want.  If you put out positive vibes, it will return tenfold. Visualize what you want and it will come to you – a lover or a really good parking place.  This is the message of the best seller, The Secret.  Conversely, negative energy attracts negativity.  Secrets of the Millionaire Mind says you should place you hand over your heart and say ‘I love rich people.’  You could join the ‘Millionaire’s club’ and meet once a month to practice this philosophy and share positive energy stories. If this sounds like a cult of positivity to you, are you a delusional, pessimistic cynic?

If something goes wrong in your life, is it because you didn’t work hard enough or pray effectively? Can you make anything you desire, such as a new TV screen or a trip to Bimini to swim with dolphins, “materialize” through mind control? Can you change or improve your future or eliminate global warming and the fascist plutocrats that control your government? If that proves difficult, shouldn’t you just focus on “always looking on the bright side of life?”

Is promoting the idea that happiness is within your grasp in the interests of corporations trying to squeeze maximum productivity out of an overworked and underpaid workforce? In the workplace, positive thinking is not voluntary; it is imposed.  Staff are forced to endure motivational speakers all day at conferences. Positive thinking in corporations became noticeable in the eighties, when the brutal fact of downsizing was being felt, and it became a favored strategy for employers to use with their downsized staff to help them cope with the consequences of unemployment. If you are fired it is an “opportunity” or a “transition.”  Layoffs become a way of squeezing more work out of the fewer employees that remain.  The popular book in the corporate world, Who Moved The Cheese?, says that if you’re going be downsized, you’d better get used to it. American euphemisms for getting fired include “releases of resources,” “career-change opportunities,” and “growth experience.” Job seekers are told that being hired depends on their attitude.  A positive attitude thus becomes the new cure for unemployment.  By the nineties this trend had hardened towards eliminating negative people in the workforce – those who were asking too many questions or expressing doubts about the efficacy of a new business plan. Positive thinking is supported by companies and corporations because it benefits them and their bottom line, not the employees. Any thinking that raises doubts or dissatisfaction can thereby be labled as “negative thinking” by companies and corporations and discouraged or penalized.

When is positive thinking about hiding your real emotions under a thick layer of fake cheer?  Can authenticity and meaning co-exist with the “smile or die” mentality characterized by the motivational industry? Do the truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, need to expend effort censoring or controlling their thoughts by continuously repeating positive affirmations? Can positive thinking ever be driven by a terrible insecurity? Could it be that a deep and unacknowledged anxiety often underlies efforts to block out unpleasant thoughts?  Is shunning negativity good for you? Does “Positive thinking” require a continual effort to deflect “negative” ideas? Are the unemployed, the sick, and the poor ‘responsible’ for their suffering because, according to the sect-like Positivity Police, happiness is a choice? Is ordering people how to feel and manipulating those emotions in order to sell “motivational products” ethical? Is the only alternative to positive thinking negative thinking?

How about health? Do you get sick and die because you have a negative attitude toward your body?  Can your attitude cure you of a disease? If you are sick, unhappy, or poor, is the problem that you’re not positive enough?

Positive thinking, we are told, boosts the immune system and so fights cancer. Barbara Ehrenreich has her PhD in cell immunology and knows something about how the body defends itself from disease. She knows her macrophages from her viruses and informs us that the immune system fights foreign invaders, not cancer cells, which are part of the body’s own system. She argues that there is no evidence for the claim that the immune system fights cancers. Macrophages are often found clustered around cancer cells, but they do not recognize them as alien and sometimes help them grow faster.  If the immune system was so important, why would the medical profession advocate chemotherapy which depletes the immune system?

After being diagnosed with an iatrogenic breast cancer Dr. Ehrenreich found herself swept away in a sea of pink and positivity: pink ribbons, a pink breast cancer teddy bear and a gift bag of pink teeny-bopper paraphernalia that included a box of crayons.  This infantilization of adults in the face of what was for her a frighteningly traumatic experience made her want to throw up. She was angry about her diagnosis and wanted to find out about cures, but when she questioned the lack of available treatment on a major breast cancer website, the Komen Foundation. she was admonished for her negative attitude toward her disease and ordered to run to a therapist for counseling.  Her attitude, she was told, could cure her. Rather than having the opportunity to be angry, upset or sad, she was encouraged to see cancer as a gift, a perspective-altering exercise designed to make her a better person. Her experience as a cancer patient sparked her distain towards practiced, forced positivity. She began to challenge the consensus that positivity cures all ills.

For Dr. Ehrenreich, positive thinking can become a dangerous delusion masquerading as a cure for all our ills. She asks, “Should cancer victims exude happiness? If you have cancer, if you aren’t positive, are you exposing yourself and fellow cancer patients who come into contact with them, to toxic negativity? Might you also make your friends uncomfortable? Are people in pain expected to hide their distress? Can “positive thinking” exact a terrible price in self-blame if a cancer defies treatment? Is the pressure to think positively an additional burden to an already devastated patient? Can positivity and magical thinking actually make illnesses worse?

Were you taught to think positively as a protection against your fears, to create patience, tolerance, and especially obedience? Is it true that “the only barriers to health and prosperity are within yourself?  If you want to improve your life, both materially and subjectively, do you just need to upgrade your attitude, revise your emotional responses and focus your mind?” Is your plight all your own fault? Can thinking the best of something actually make it happen? Does cancer result from a deficient immune system? Is positive thinking essential to health, wealth and wellbeing or can positive thinking itself sometimes be a dangerous delusion? Is there a problem with mindless platitudes, pep talks and positivity proselytizing? Is optimism the opium of the people?  Are both the 2008 economic crash and the war in Iraq, examples of the danger of blind optimism? Is there such a thing as inauthentic happiness? Is the greatest cult of our time the cult of positivity?”

What is the alternative to grandiose amounts of positive thinking? Ehrenreich does not disagree with the benefits of positive thinking, nor is she claiming all positive thinking is bad or wrong, but rather wisely points out its abuses and misuses. She is particularly concerned about its potential use to demand conformity to group values or to repress genuine fear, anger or sadness.

Ehrenreich thinks we need to replace “positive thinking” with a “vigilant realism.” The bigger answer is to be less preoccupied with ourselves; a focus on protecting ourselves ends up harming us. We are isolated and community breaks down. “The threats we face are real, and can be vanquished only by shaking off self absorption and taking action in the world.” She advocates realism, in the sense of figuring out what is going on and doing something about it. Ehrenreich asks, “How about determination? How about creating movements to fight for social change? Do we need a grown-up disdain for complacency, compliance and conformity? Is there value in ‘defensive pessimism?’” As examples, Ehrenreich provides having your foot near the brake pedal just in case there’s a three-year-old round the next corner; chefs who worry about the soufflé falling; energy planners who consider the worst outcomes of radiation poisoning and plutonium thefts; wheelchair manufacturers who are wary of crushing babies’ fingers.

True fulfillment doesn’t come from seeing ourselves as personal life projects, but from giving ourselves to something bigger than we are. Happiness comes to those who aren’t looking for it, but have thrown themselves into loving and serving others by caring for family, building community, campaigning for a better world and pursuing life. Consumerism would have you believe otherwise, but we only find ourselves when we give ourselves away.

IDL notes that there is a difference between positive statements that are rational substitutions for your cognitive distortions and positive statements that have no grounding in your life and are simply positive generalities. The first type of positive statement is important, effective and powerful because it is a remedy to a genuine emotional, rational or worldview distortion. It is grounded in your reality and real world needs. For instance, suppose your cognitive distortion is, “No one will ever love me because I am ugly and fat.” You could tell yourself, “I am a wonderful person and everyone loves me.” The problem is that you do not believe this. You are attempting to do magic, to imagine a better you in the belief that if you just do so in the right way, long enough, it will come true. There are multitudes of popular books extolling the virtues and transformative power of this type of pre-rational magical thinking. Now compare that statement to a simple substitution for your cognitive distortion, such as, “Because I am not psychic I do not know that NO ONE will ever love me. Some people will think I am ugly and fat, others won’t. Most probably won’t care because they will be too busy wondering if I think they are ugly and fat!” The difference in effectiveness of this second set of statements, when compared to happy magical thinking is obvious. Why would anyone do the former when they can do the latter?

Are those who challenge the benefits of positivity suffering from what is called “naïve realism?” Ariana Shives from says, “Naive realism… is defined as: “the conviction that one’s own views are objective and unbiased, whereas the other’s views are biased by ideology, self-interest and irrationality.” Unfortunately naïve realism is rampant in our politics and other areas of disagreement around our world in a wide variety of topics. Optimism and positive thinking appears to go through a developmental progression just like most other aspects of personality. First we are naively and magically positive; just by correct beliefs we can make the world the way we want it. This is called pre-personal magical thinking. At some point, if we ask enough questions, our unquestioning belief ripens into what Ehrenreich calls “vigilant realism” and happiness through reciprocity: treating others as we would like to be treated. This may or may not be the “naive realism” mentioned above. If people at this stage remain psychologically geocentric, meaning that they refuse to question the objectivity and bias of their own views, then they may well be. The mistake that believers in the cult of positivity make is that they are sure that anyone who questions their belief in positivity must be naively realistic, simply because they cannot conceive of an alternative. The problem then, is that it is such people who have a conviction that their view of positivity is objective and unbiased when it is not at all. They are the naive realists, but instead of recognizing it, they project this limitation onto all others who view positivity differently from them.

Beyond this there is a third general approach to happiness that includes but transcends the other two. As we get out of our own way and disidentify from our sensory, emotional, mental, visual and consciousness self-definitions, we reduce the automatic and largely out-of-awareness filtering that blocks our perception of abundance, joy and even bliss. This is not positive thinking, and no amount of positive thinking will propel you into a life grounded in this sort of authentic happiness. It is instead a product of learning to get out of your own way.

There is a position or perspective that transcends and includes both positive thinking and experiences that one does not view as positive.  When we find ourselves in such circumstances what happens when we are unable to authentically use positive thinking as a realistic or helpful response? Those who make positivity into a cult, that is, a fundamental belief system which they build their lives around and have faith in, cannot conceive of such a position; they therefore ignore, repress, and generally refuse to listen to the opportunities presented by accepting the reality of negativity, as a pole of reality and life. By doing so, they simply block higher order synthesis, all the time sure that they are on the road to enlightenment. This is a subset of positive thinkers. This is not a statement that applies to all of them.

Just as there is a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, there is a higher order integration of all opposites that is available. For example, positivity and pessimism, promotion-focus and prevention focus, nurturance and security, or in the field of relationships, dependence, independence, leading to the higher order integration of interdependency. Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to each, and it is difficult to argue that either opposition is superior to access to both polarities are based on the circumstances at hand. When people emphasize positivity to the exclusion of reason and healthy questioning, they deprive themselves of ever reaching any higher order integration of the two.

IDL supports optimism while encouraging objectivity, by checking your conclusions and attitude against objective and subjective sources of objectivity (experts and interviewed emerging potentials) as well as your common sense.  You can be constructively positive about your ability to get unstuck when you access the priorities of your life compass, as represented by the consensus recommendations of your interviewed emerging potentials, and by aligning your life with their priorities. By all means, cultivate a general positive outlook. There are many well-researched reasons to do so. However, instead of trying to talk yourself into believing you are happy and life is fine when neither is the case, with IDL you can learn to move ahead with confidence that you can tune into life’s agenda and learn to live your life in harmony with it.

This article is an excerpt from the essay, “Words and Concepts that Are and Are Not Conducive to Enlightenment.”

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