Positively Ignorant: The Epidemic of Positive Thinking

Creative Commons License photo credit: Melody Campbell

Yoga teachers love to talk about how positive thinking breeds prosperity, health, joy, and anything else you might possibly want. But I have yet to be sold on the idea that an unwavering positive attitude is the answer all life’s ills.

I can’t help but feels that the “it’s all bliss” attitude in the yoga world is grounded in ignorance to the legitimate pains others experience.  Would you pat a child suffering from the Somalian famine on the back and say:  “Keep your chin up something good will come from it?”  How about suggest to someone who lost their home in the Japan tsunami that they somehow “willed” their misfortune or that it was karma?  Positivity may make you feel good about your circumstances temporarily, but maybe the negative feelings we experience may be there for a purpose.

In an interview called The Dark Side of the Bright Side, bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that a positive attitude may very well be the “antithesis of critical thinking.” Looking at the bright side, she says, does little to spark beneficial change:

Manufactured optimism has become a method to make the poor feel guilty for their poverty, the ill for their lack of health and the victims of corporate layoffs for their inability to find worthwhile jobs. Megachurches preach the “gospel of prosperity,” exhorting poor people to visualize financial success.

Is promoting optimism a mechanism of social control to keep the system in balance?

If you want to have a compliant populace, what could be better than to say that everyone has to think positively and accept that anything that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault because they haven’t had a positive enough attitude?

You mean we need to have optimism, but grounded in reality?

I don’t call it optimism. I call it determination. One of the things I’ve devoted so much time to has had to do with poverty, class and inequality. Those things are not going to go away in my lifetime, but it won’t be for my lack of trying. And that’s a different kind of spirit than optimism.

Do you think encouraging those who are suffering to see the bright side of things makes things worse?

Are mottos like “it is what it is” and “it was meant to be” a way of rationalizing unpleasant circumstances as divine intervention?

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- who has written 21 posts on Yoga Modern.

Patience Steltzer is the Assistant Editor for the World Affairs Current at Yoga Modern. She spends her time drawing, painting, sewing, writing, and practicing/teaching yoga in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. After a lifetime of having no idea what to do with her creativity and energy, she discovered yoga allowed her to find the beauty and excitement in stillness. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing her love of yoga with others to help them find the joy she has.

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