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?

Posted by:

- 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.

7 Responses

  • bill says:

    You know of the three articles I have read each they each been something I have thought about.
    So YM will a place I will be, thanks for the thought provoking place to think out loud.

    As for this piece, I would concur that they always in your face bright shining smile with no worries and the perfect car, right beer, taking the correct meds by asking your doctor if they are right for you paradigms are meant to keep the population in a haze.
    People need their space to feel like shit if they choose to. The plausible idea that we can be happy despite being kicked to curb is absurd.
    Ask yourself this: Have you ever been depressed, been laid off, changed your career at 50, or any other of lifes myriad of curves thrown at you? Then chances are you have had times that were less than ideal.
    What did you do will it away? No you got out of the bed and managed to fake it till ya made it..
    Maybe you became one with the pain of all those things. Then acceptance and not optimism got you out of the hole, if you were fortunate there was someone sitting on the edge of that hole that kicked your ass back into play. And that my friends along with the determination deep inside you is what will carry you on…

  • I think there is a difference between optimism toward particular outcomes being based on past experiences and optimism which is wishful thinking.

    Where optimism is based on wishful thinking it may be the result of fear or a feeling of powerlessness. In that case if there is a solution to a situation that requires tackling that situation, a person does themselves a disservice. For example,I know many people who do not like the current political climate but don't vote as they see no power in it. Since their lives are not greatly impacted if they don't look outside themselves they are optimistic that nothing will change.

    Negative thinking is not good for our health so maybe that's why yoga teachers talk about positive thinking. From my yoga teacher's perspective, it is not our job to tell people what they will or will not gain from their behavior but to help them understand themselves.

    I think that saying things like 'the universe has a plan' or 'it's meant to be' or whatever, is a way of not freaking out and nothing more. You can somehow trust a 'universe' where the sun always rises and sets no matter what disaster occurred the day before, as a sign that life goes on despite. Sometimes we just need that thought as we are picking ourselves up for the next go round. Hilary

  • At the core of this issue is the dualistic thinking we in the West, especially in the US, just love to embrace and hold dear to our hearts. We do not like the idea of gray area and are even more put off by the idea of perception. We like to believe things are black or white and that what we see IS. However, the whole notion of positive or negative is just another in a line of dualistic thinking which is used to sell all sorts of commodities and label all sorts of circumstances.

    Completely positive or negative thinking is not helpful and is actually somewhat limiting and I would argue actually quite intellectually lazy. Truly seeing only the bright side limits asking questions and turning away from that which does not coincide with one's rosy outlook or understanding. Seeing only the dark side also limits questioning but in a different way. It accepts the status quo as being incapable or unworthy of changing so why bother. Either way you have one surrendering the ability and the responsibility to ask dig deeper and find gray area which may or may not be something desirable to do. It's a matter of conscience capitulation and convenience.

    I've struggled with this issue for many years. Feeling unable to completely be positive and then feeling guilty because of it. Feeling unable to shed negativity and then feeling guilty because of it. It was not until I found the Buddhist belief in suffering did I find a middle ground. A healthy context to view the battle of light and dark and embrace the gray.

    The Buddhists believe that pain mandatory but suffering is optional. If that is not the epitome of positive and negative gray area then I don't know what is.

  • justthisbreath says:

    There is power in thinking in a "positive" way…nothing is 100% good or bad and simply focusing on the parts you don't like will probably not be helpful in the long run. However, "positive thinking" has gotten way out of control. Studies have shown that when some people repeat positive affirmations, they actually get more depressed. Not everyone, but some people. (The theory is that if the affirmation is SO far away from what a person actually believes herself to be, she feels like she's just lying to herself and ends up feeling worse.)
    There is nothing wrong with feeling emotions which are labeled negative. If that's what you're feeling, accept it, move on. No need to pretend. Some people want to call any honest expression of emotion "beauty." Not necessarily. I remember telling a friend about a truly traumatizing experience I had. She thanked me for telling my "beautiful story." I felt so hurt….if she thought this ugly, ugly story was beautiful, she either wasn't paying attention or she had some really strange ideas.
    This doesn't mean that good things can't come out of bad situations…definitely, they can…it happens all the time. But not all things are pretty or good or beautiful. Let's be real.

  • Chelsea says:

    A quote from one of my favorite books, Letters to A Young Poet:

    “Why should you want to exclude any anxiety, any grief, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what it is that these conditions are accomplishing for you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the questions of where everything comes from and where it is headed? You do know that you are in a period of transition and wish for nothing as much as to transform yourself. If some aspect of your life is not well, then consider the illness to be the means for an organism to free itself from something foreign to it. In that case you must help it to be ill and to have its whole illness, to let it break out. That is the course of its progress.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

  • So glad this conversation is being had. The "Secret" in Yoga, repeated over and over in Patanjali's sutras, has to do with going beyond desire and aversion, not with positive thinking. There's nothing wrong with positive thinking, it does help. But the conversation has gotten far away from Yoga when it becomes such a quest for joy, with such strong desires to banish any painful experiences at any cost.