Tag Archives: Positive Thinking

Is Positive Thinking a Religious Cult?

Picture by Bryan Derksen.

Recently someone found this blog by typing this question into a search engine. Today I thought I’d answer it with another question :

How do they respond to hard times?

That is, imagine telling someone you know who believes in positive thinking that you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, are a victim of abuse or have been laid off.  How would they react?

If they blame you in any way for what happened or infer that you can prevent it from happening again if you think the right thoughts, run! This is not an emotionally healthy response to suffering and their lack of critical thinking may be a sign that this individual is involved in a cult or a cult-like organization.

If they offer practical assistance or comfort you, relax.

The bottom line is that it depends what one means when we talk about positive thinking. I know people who use this term in place of words like optimism or hope. They believe that our outlooks on life influence what happens to us (and I agree with them that a good attitude is vital) but acknowledge that not every bad experience can be avoided.

Other people treat positive thinking as a magical talisman against misfortune and blame the victim when an act of nature or the horrible decision of another human being harms them. These people may or may not be involved in a cult but they should be avoided at all costs.

Religious Aspects of Positive Thinking

I recently finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Her premise: the US (and Canada, too, I’d argue) pushes everyone to maintain unbridled optimism about anything and everything that may come their way. Even cancer. The problem is that thinking positive thoughts doesn’t change the outcome of cancer treatment or of anything else investigated in this book.

Religion and positive thinking are both guilty at times of giving our thoughts far too much power. As I said earlier, the problem with positive thinking is not optimism, it’s expectations. There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side or expecting that everything will eventually work itself out for the greater good. There is a big problem, though, with the magical thinking that often accompanies persistent optimism. Thoughts cannot be weighed or measured. They cannot bring down the wrath of the gods if  the wrong idea flits through your head. Certain thoughts can be harmful if they lead you to do or say something hurtful (or if they’re a symptom of mental illness and you’re not able to shake off  the burdensome ones.)

It is true that positive thinking is not a religion in the sense that it worships a god or gods. But it does have a mystical quality to it all: follow these steps, say and do these things, believe in this idea (and never that one), and all of your problems will melt away. If your problems don’t go away, if you doubt, if this system doesn’t work for you for any reason,  it’s because you were never a true believer.

There is no middle ground here. No fine print. It’s one size fits all in a world with an infinite number of sizes and shapes. Imagine a board with a series of holes lined up in neat rows from top to bottom. Each hole is just large enough for a small rubber ball to fit through it. It isn’t big enough to pass wooden building block through it, even though some of the other people in the room thinks that everything in the room – the building blocks, the potted plant in the corner, the windows, the desks, the chairs – should be able to fit through that hole if one tries hard enough and cultivates the correct attitude and thoughts.

This isn’t the way life works in the world that I live in. I understand that these types of black-and-white absolutist statements are a source of comfort and stability for many of the people who subscribe to various religious beliefs and I’m happy for those for whom these ideas genuinely work. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to start chopping up the chairs, shattering the glass in the windows or digging the plants out of the soil so that they can fit through the holes in the board in my imaginary room, though.

Objections to The Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction is the idea that thoughts influence the chance of something happening. From what I understand of this principle, it teaches that what one thinks about most often is probably what is going to end up happening. If you worry about filing for bankruptcy or being diagnosed with terminal cancer your chances of developing these types of problems becomes much more likely. Conversely, the Law of Attraction also teaches that we are much more likely to become wealthy, healthy and successful if we truly believe in them. Your thoughts, then, become your reality, for good or for ill.

Drew, my significant other, suspects there might be something to the Law of Attraction. It is one of our few areas of friendly yet profound disagreement over the years. I have several major objections to his principle even as certain aspects of it do appeal to me.

Objection Number One: The existence of something doesn’t depend on what we thinks about it. Either it exists or it doesn’t exist, it works or doesn’t work. If my family doctor prescribed a round of antibiotics for me, for example,  she would never say, “Lydia, these antibiotics will only work if you truly believe you are feeling better before you take them!” The success or failure of the antibiotics may be influenced by the type of (hopefully not antibiotic-resistant) infection and whether I take all of the pills on time, but the thoughts I have while taking the medication isn’t going to have anything to do with how quickly it cures me.

Objection Number Two: Is a child who is being abused somehow creating his or her reality by thinking about it too much? If he or she thought happier thoughts would the abuse stop? All of the answers I’ve heard to these questions either assume that the abuse is the result of bad karma from a previous life or claim that child abuse will stop when the rest of us stop thinking about it.

Objection Number Three: Discrimination, whether it’s based on age, gender, social class, race, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation or other factors, is part of the social reality for billions of people on this planet. There are individuals and  groups in this world who will not give you a chance if you’re not part of the right crowd. It isn’t right, it often isn’t legal…but it still happens. The Law of Attraction cannot change this. We’ve been discriminating against one another for at least as long as we’ve had the written word.

Objection Number Four: What happens when it doesn’t work? From what I’ve read on this topic, many practitioners of the Law of Attraction say that people who try it without success weren’t trying hard enough or never really believed that they deserved the things they were attempting to attract. This reminds me of something a Christian family friend once told me: “You don’t really have an allergy to milk products, you just think you do. The devil is tricking you and if you really believe in God you’ll be able to eat or drink anything.” I wanted so badly to believe him that I tried a piece of milk chocolate. Yes, I was still allergic. It didn’t make any sense to me; at the time I was more dedicated to my faith than I ever had been before.

And Yet…there are aspects of the Law of Attraction with which I do agree.   Someone with an optimistic attitude who treats others with an abundance of kindness, generosity and respect is generally going to have an easier time in life than an individual who who expects the worst out of themselves and those around them and treats them accordingly. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but most people align themselves with the former type of person, not the latter. Believing in oneself builds confidence and when others sense confidence in you they will change the ways in which they interact with you for the better.

In many ways, the Law of Attraction reminds me of prosperity theology. Both of these groups take nuggets of psychologically-alluring (and occasionally even true) information and wraps them in materialism, miracles, mythology, and self-blame.