Friday, November 12, 2010

The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

So while reading up a bit on Rev Schuller for my previous blog post I noticed a lot of online Christian sources blasting him for preaching a gospel of positive thinking.  At first I didn’t think too much of it, since that’s the kind of short hand many Christian groups sometimes use to indicate that a preacher isn’t anti-gay and pro-hellfire enough for their liking.  However when I finally got to the bottom of his Wiki page I noticed that they actually meant that quite literally – the power of positive thinking was his message.  Just look at the titles of some of the books he authored:

Way To The Good Life (1963)
Move Ahead With Possibility Thinking (1967)
Self-Love (1975)
You Can Be The Person You Want To Be (1976)
Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (1982)
Living Positively One Day At A Time (1986)
Success is never ending, failure is never final (1990)

If I threw in a couple of titles by self esteem/positive thinking gurus like Tony Robbins would you be able to tell?  (Just FYI, I didn’t.  Those are all from the good reverend).  There is nothing in there that even seems Christian for goodness sake!  The message is clear – if you want a good life you need good self esteem and a positive attitude.  Of course when you take in the reality of the Crystal Cathedral’s $43 million debt a very different message becomes apparent – positive thinking cannot save you.

Look, I won’t claim that positive thinking is completely useless since it demonstrably isn’t.  It makes sense that a positive person would be more likely to be looking for opportunities and would be more likely to actually pursue the ones they find.  In a way, positive people can create their own luck by finding and making good use of all the opportunities a pessimist might overlook or choose not to make use of.  However, that is where it ends.  No amount of positive thinking can control the universe.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the positive thinking preachers would like you to believe.  Whether they dress it up in the Christian language of Rev Schuller or in the pseudo-scientific language of “The Secret”, in the end the message is still that you can bend the world to your will purely by thinking really positively.  The big problem with that idea is that the universe couldn’t care less what you thought.

The thing about reality is that it doesn’t require you to believe in it, doesn’t need you to approve of it and it doesn’t want you to like it.  It just is and wishing really hard will never change that.  That is why all the positive thinking in the world won’t prevent disasters (manmade and natural) from bringing destruction to your life.  Despite what you may have been told, no amount of positive thinking can cure cancer and other terminal illnesses*.  Unfair as it may seem to our tender sensibilities, a bitter and cynical person may survive the dread disease that a happy, positive person succumbs to.  It happens every day.  You can’t wish your way out of a bad situation.  Some things will always be outside your control and others are the inevitable results of the choices we make.  For instance if you eat more calories than you use you will gain weight.  Likewise, if you spend more than you earn you will go into debt, as the good folks over at the Crystal Cathedral so beautifully demonstrated.  Positive thinking cannot and does not make your debt disappear.  Happy thoughts cannot create money out of thin air.   

Seems to me that while positive thinking can do some good, it is just as likely to actually make things much, much worse.  Let’s say you start experiencing some worrisome physical symptoms.  A realistic thing to do would be to have it checked out, right?  You never know, it may be serious.  A positive thinker on the other hand may decide that going to a doctor is just too pessimistic and instead try to wish themselves better.  If something is in fact seriously wrong, who do you think has a better chance of getting treatment in time?  Now think about the positive folks over at the Crystal Cathedral.  A less positive group of people may have realized they needed to seriously re-evaluate their spending habits after the first couple of million dollars worth of debt.  Not them!  Seems they felt confident just going on with spending money they didn’t have and just believing that things would work themselves out.  After all, aren’t things supposed to all work out in the end?  Well no, no they aren’t.  Truth is, there is no realistic reason why things have to work out for the best for anyone.  Wishes are no match for reality and if you persist in a harmful pattern of behavior then all the positive thinking in the world won’t change the inevitable consequences of your actions.  Miracles don’t have to happen but reality always does.

Here we are, stuck in a big universe that seems indifferent at best to our personal happiness.  So of course we would all be drawn to the idea that we are in fact not completely out of control, that there is some magical way we can control our reality.  No such way actually exists but of course that has never stopped people from selling programs and "principles" for those desperate for some form of control.  Sadly, those are all illusions and nothing more.  There is no way to actually make yourself rich or thin or healthy or happy simply by wishing really hard or being really really positive about things.  We all have to play the cards we are dealt, that is reality.  If having a positive attitude helps you make the best of the reality you've been given then great, do not stop.  Just don't get carried away and start thinking you can alter reality through happy thoughts and wishful thinking.  Some things will forever be out of your control and anyone telling you different probably has a book they would like to sell you.

* The clinical studies done on the subject show very clearly that attitude has no influnece on survival when it comes to serious ilnesses like cancer. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there have been studies showing that pessimists cope really well with cancer.  In fact, according to at least one researcher I could find, the whole positive thinking movement can do more harm than good for cancer patients.  Jimmie Holland, MD, psychiatrist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center coined the term "the tyranny of positive thinking" to describe the belief.
"The idea that we can control illness and death with our minds appeals to our deepest yearnings, but it just isn't so," she tells WebMD. "It is so sad that cancer patients are made to believe that if they aren't doing well it is somehow their own fault because they aren't positive enough."

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