BY SOFO ARCHON
Illustration by Jim Cooke
“Just think positively and all your problems will vanish into thin air. Don’t care about taking concrete action to change the conditions of your life – just sit where you are and visualize with positive intent that everything’s going to be alright.”
This is the essence of the philosophy that many self-help coaches, authors and so-called spiritual teachers are preaching. It has been named “positive thinking” and is selling pretty well, considering that the “positive thinking” industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.
But what if I told you that it’s total nonsense?
You might be thinking: “What the hell, Sofo, have you gone crazy? Your entire blog is about dealing with suffering and rediscovering joy – in other words, about how to let go of the negative and experience the positive – and now you are saying that positive thinking is nonsense?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. At least when it comes to “positive thinking” as it’s commonly portrayed in popular books and films. But before you’re too quick to judge my stance on the matter, let me explain myself.
Shutting Your Eyes Won’t Make Your Problems Disappear
If you look at life without the filters of ideology, you will see that it contains both positive and negative realities: There’s pleasure and pain, love and hate, peace and war, and so on and so forth.
According to the philosophy of “positive thinking”, however, we shouldn’t think about the negative side of life, and, in fact, we should pretend that it doesn’t even exist. This way, we are told, we won’t be affected by it. Not only that; if we don’t think about it and instead focus on the positive side, the negative will go away just like that.
“Don’t worry about the starving children in Africa. Just pray for them and they will be alright.”
“Don’t worry about rising sea levels, environmental pollution, and biodiversity loss. Just keep a “positive mindset” and our planet will recover from all the damage that has been inflicted on it.”
“Don’t worry about your job that you hate or your relationships that are messed up. Just visualize that you’re already living the life of your dreams and you will soon find the ideal partner and the perfect career.”
Needless to say, “positive thinking” won’t do a damn thing about all the above. The African children will keep on dying in millions from starvation, our planet will keep on being harmed, and your life will keep on sucking. In fact, things will get even worse. By not paying our problems any attention and actually doing something to resolve them, with time they are bound to become more and more complicated and hence increasingly affect us and the world we live in.
“Look, here’s the little trick I use that makes all my problems disappear.” —Master Positive Thinker
To give you an analogy, “positive thinking” is like being in a house that has caught fire yet doing nothing about it other than wishing that the fire goes away. Of course, the fire will keep on burning and growing wilder, until it eventually consumes the entire house and yourself along with it.
That’s why I call “positive thinking” a nonsense philosophy: Not only does it not work, it is counterproductive too – that is, it creates the exact opposite results of what it seeks. The question, then, is why do so many people buy into it?
The Appeal of “Positive Thinking”
Somewhere I read the following profound words:
“Do not be afraid to accept ugly truths, and never be afraid to reject beautiful lies.”
Unfortunately, the wide majority of us (and by “us” I mean “humans”) doesn’t hesitate for a moment to accept lies that are beautiful and reject truths that are ugly. That’s because ugly truths remind us of serious life problems that we need to resolve, and to do so we need to go through a lot of hardship and pain. And who likes to experience hardship and pain?
No one (well, except masochists, I guess).
So we tend to avoid facing our problems. And what’s the best way to do so? To not look at them at all, in a desperate effort to fool ourselves that they don’t exist.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that so many people buy into the philosophy of “positive thinking”. They want to hear beautiful lies that will make them feel that everything’s alright, and hence that they needn’t stress about anything. And since we are living in a world where money is the ruling force, of course there are going to be some cunning individuals who are willing to sell “positive thinking” and exploit others’ insecurities for their financial gain.
Personally, through my writing I like to state the truth as it is, even if it’s at times terribly ugly. I know that many of you — my readers — might be put off by it, but I also know that this is the only way to face our problems and deal with them, on a personal and a collective level. So if you’re a long-time fan of this blog, I’d like to take a moment to praise you for being such a badass reader and committed truth seeker.
From “Positive Thinking” to Grounded, Action-Based Thinking
Imagine that you are suffering from a painful, debilitating disease that requires medical intervention. You can use “positive thinking” in an effort to convince yourself that your disease isn’t serious and that soon you’ll recover to good health, without actually treating your condition. However, in reality this will do nothing to help you heal — your disease will keep on being there, and chances are that it will become worse.
Now, imagine that you instead decided to let a medical expert examine your disease, find out its underlying cause and how to treat it. He or she might inform you that the treatment involves some pain — it could be that you need surgery or a heavy dose of medication with possible side effects. But you know that, no matter the extra pain you may undergo during the treatment, in the end it will be worth it. That’s because afterwards you’ll be relieved of the pain caused by your disease, while the additional pain caused by the treatment will only be temporary. So you decide to follow the medical expert’s advice, and soon afterwards you become healthy again.
Like in the above example, if we wish to overcome our life problems, then we need to do something about them. By that I don’t mean to merely repeat positive affirmations in our minds and wish that all is going to be perfectly fine. Rather, I mean to stand up from our chairs, roll up our sleeves and take concrete action. But first we need to accept and attend to our problems, instead of denying them, as the philosophy of “positive thinking” urges us to do. We need to look at them in the eye, examine why they are there, and search for ways to effectively deal with them.
Of course, this can be quite a tough thing to do. To admit that something is wrong with our lives is a bitter pill to swallow. And to change it might require painstakingly hard work. But, whether we like it or not, there’s no other way to go about it. Either we work our problems out and suffer for a short while, or we ignore them and suffer for as long as we’re alive.