Positive thinking is the idea that you can have what you want if you bring it to you in your thoughts. Anything is yours, if you only want it hard enough.

But less the one month ago, one of the most famous positive thinking gurus in the USA Rev.Dr. Robert H. Schuller lost the bulk of his multimillion-dollar claims against his former ministry, a now “bankrupt” religious empire.

We’ll start liquidating everything,” said Carol Milner, one of Schuller’s daughters, upon hearing the verdict.

Until recently Robert H. Schuller nevertheless remained a favorite speaker of the Get Motivated!, America's 'most popular business motivational seminar'.

According  to the description of a recent attendee , in a huge in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio in Texas with more than fifteen thousand people, the crowd roars its assent of Robert H. Schuller. “Here it is, then; Dr Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading 'MOTIVATE!' and 'SUCCEED!', seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. 'Here's the thing that will change your life forever.' Then he barks a single syllable - 'Cutt' - and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ' ... the word "impossible" out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!- 'You are the master of your destiny!' Schuller goes on. 'Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! ... Positive thinking works in every area of life!”

 

But “bankruptcy” was a word Dr Schuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary.

Perhaps you don't need telling that self-help books, the modern-day apotheosis of the quest for happiness, are among the things that fail to make us happy. But, for the record, research strongly suggests that they rarely much help. This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the 'eighteen-month rule', which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book - one that evidently didn't solve all their problems.

Steve Salerno (a former self-help book editor for Rodale Press) mentioned this in his book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. He explains how the talks and tapes offer a momentary boost of inspiration that fades after a few weeks, turning buyers into repeat customers.

Surrounding SHAM so Salerno, is a bulletproof shield: if your life does not get better, it is your fault — your thoughts were not positive enough. The solution? More of the same self-help — or at least the same message repackaged into new products. Consider the multiple permutations of John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus — Mars and Venus Together Forever, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, The Mars and Venus Diet and Exercise Solution — not to mention the Mars and Venus board game, musical and Club Med getaway. SHAM takes advantage by cleverly marketing the dualism of victimization and empowerment. Like a religion that defines people as inherently sinful so that they require forgiveness (provided exclusively by that religion), SHAM gurus insist that we are all victims of our demonic “inner children” who are produced by traumatic pasts that create negative “tapes” that replay over and over in our minds. Redemption comes through empowering yourself with new “life scripts,” supplied by the masters themselves, for prices that range from $500 one-day workshops to Robbins’s $5,995 “Date with Destiny” seminar.

When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn't especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you'll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; How to Win Friends and Influence People advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people's first names a lot. A successful management manual some years back, Fish!, is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

But when the messages get more specific than that, self-help gurus tend to make claims that simply aren't supported by more reputable research.And whatever you make of the country-by-country surveys of national happiness that are now published with some regularity, it's striking that the 'happiest' countries are never those where self-help books sell the most, nor indeed where professional psychotherapists are most widely consulted. The existence of a thriving 'happiness industry' clearly isn't sufficient to engender national happiness, and it's not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse. Yet the ineffectiveness of modern strategies for happiness is really just a small part of the problem. There are good reasons to believe that the whole notion of, seeking happiness' is flawed to begin with. For one thing, who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place?

Religions have never placed much explicit emphasis on it, at least as far as this world is concerned; philosophers have certainly not been unanimous in endorsing it, either. And any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that evolution has little interest in your being happy, beyond trying to make sure that you're not so listless or miserable that you lose the will to reproduce.

Even assuming happiness to be a worthy target, though, a worse pitfall awaits, which is that aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it. 'Ask yourself whether you are happy; observed the philosopher John Stuart Mill, 'and you cease to be so.' At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. (We tend to remember having been happy in the past much more frequently than we are conscious of being happy in the present.) Making matters worse still, what happiness actually is feels impossible to define in words; even supposing you could do so, you'd presumably end up with as many different definitions as there are people on the planet. All of which means it's tempting to conclude that 'how can we be happy?' is simply the wrong question - that we might as well resign ourselves to never finding the answer, and get on with something more productive instead.

In fact the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative - insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness - that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

Another more recent example indicating that research strongly suggests that self help books aren't usually much help is Gerald Haeffel, Cognitive Skills Training Does Not Prevent Depressive Symptoms in People Who Ruminate', Behaviour Research and Therapy 48 (2010): 152-7.

With ‘The Power of Negative Thinking’ Bob Knight and co-writer Bob Hammel now attempt to add a new twist by describing how successful people and leaders succeed by expecting things to go wrong at any moment, and by building a realistic strategy that takes all potential obstacles into account. Valid as this ‘common sense’ addition is, and an clear improvement from previous titles, the book is still a motivational self help book (with the usual anecdotes) in this case primarily for sport fans.

We might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions - or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them. Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumptions about what 'happiness', or/and  ‘success’ really means.

Another question that has been asked is if a curiously unfalsifiable ideology of positivity at all costs - positivity regardless of the results – at times be even dangerous?

This is one part of the case made by the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, in her 2010 book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. One under-appreciated cause of the global financial crisis of the late 2000’s, she argues, was an American business culture in which even thinking about the possibility of failure - let alone speaking up about it at meetings - had come to be considered an embarrassing faux pas. Bankers, their narcissism stoked by a culture that awarded grand ambition above all, lost the capacity to distinguish between their ego-fuelled dreams and concrete results. Meanwhile, home¬buyers assumed that whatever they wanted could be theirs if they 'wanted it badly enough (how many of them had read books such as The Secret, which makes exactly that claim?) and accordingly sought mortgages they were unable to repay. Irrational optimism suffused the financial sector, and the professional purveyors of optimism - the speakers and self-help gurus and seminar organisers - were only too happy to encourage it. 'To the extent that positive thinking had become a business in itself; writes Ehrenreich, “business was its principal client, eagerly consuming the good news that all things are possible through an effort of mind. This was a useful message for employees, who by the turn of the twenty-first century were being required to work longer hours for fewer benefits and diminishing job security. But it was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonising over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks - and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults - when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?”

 
Ehrenreich traces the origins of this philosophy to nineteenth-century America, and specifically to the quasi-religious movement known as New Thought. New Thought arose in rebellion against the dominant, gloomy message of American Calvinism, which was that relentless hard work was the duty of every Christian - with the additional sting that, thanks to the doctrine of predestination, you might in any case already be marked to spend eternity in Hell. New Thought, by contrast, proposed that one could achieve happiness and worldly success through the power of the mind. This mind-power could even cure physical ailments, according to the newly minted religion of Christian Science, which grew directly from the same roots. Yet, as Ehrenreich makes clear, New Thought imposed its own kind of harsh judgmentalism, replacing Calvinism's obligatory hard work with obligatory positive thinking. Negative thoughts were fiercely denounced - a message that echoed 'the old religion's condemnation of sin' and added 'an insistence on the constant interior labour of self-examination'. Quoting the sociologist Micki McGee, she shows how, under this new orthodoxy of optimism,”'continuous and never-ending work on the self [was] offered not only as a road to success, but also to a kind of secular salvation.”

 

The Hidden History Positive Thinking

Whether referring to Ralph Waldo Trine’s What All the World’s A-Seeking; Or the Vital Law of True Life, True Greatness, Power, and Happiness (1896), Charles B. Newcomb’s All’s Right with the World (1899), or, more recently, to Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical , and Financial Destiny! (1992), and Deepak Chopra’s Creating Affluence—Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities (1993), including the most recent ones listed at the top, the arguments are remarkably alike.

The 1930s, the heyday of success manuals, made best-selling authors of idiots savants like Dale Carnegie, Walter Pitkin, Dorothea Brande, Napoleon Hill, and other fools for good news and easy money. Let Your Mind Alone!, cried James Thurber, in a 1937 collection of salvos aimed at these writers’ contempt for social ethics. Then Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, and all was lost.

Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers (1965), was the first book length study that traced this movement from Mary Baker Eddy, to Norman Vincent Peale.

 Anything is yours, if you only want it hard enough. Just think of it. ANYTHING. Try it. Try it in earnest and you will succeed. It is the operation of a mighty Law.

Does that sound like something from the latest spin-off of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006)? In fact, those words were written in 1900 by William Walter Atkinson, the man who authored the first book on the “Law of Attraction.” Atkinson was only one of the many and varied personalities that make up the New Thought movement.

Yet amid the numerous religious and secular positive thinkers today, the term New Thought is curiously absent from their discussions. Instead, we find a myriad of labels and trademarks (i.e., Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life”) that are marketed for personal gain. Today’s “science” of cheer and self-discovery sold through television celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams, and Ellen DeGeneres. These recently discovered “keys,” “laws,” “steps,” and “secrets” to health and happiness are little more than plagiarisms of ideas first identified in the nineteenth and early twentieth century works of New Thought celebrities Wallace Wattles, William Walker Atkinson Elizabeth Towne, Prentice Mulford, Robert Collier, and others.

Today, these jeremiads of mind-body healing or self-empowerment fall under headings such as New Age, esotericism, spiritualism, self-help, auto-suggestion, affirmation, etc. All, however, reflect the principles of New Thought, even in cases where the authors themselves do not appear to have intended it.

To briefly clarify this, the New Thought Movement where today’s positive thinking culture derives from  is the name of a late 19th and early 20th century religious movement that emphasized metaphysical beliefs concerning the effects of positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, life force, creative visualization and personal power.

The earliest identifiable proponent of what came to be known as New Thought was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–66), an American mesmerist. The 1890s and the first decades of the 20th century next saw an explosion of what came to be known as self-help books, including the financial success and will-training books.

Around the same time American Spiritualism was born, Mary Baker Glover's crisply titled Science and Health appeared in print. It would stand beside the Bible for Christian Scientists, and it became the scripture that was canonically read in Christian Science services everywhere. Early on in her marriage plagued with ill health-probably mostly what George Beard would by the 1880s label "American nervousness," or neurasthenia Mary Baker Glover attempted homeopathy, hydropathy (water cure), and mesmerism and eventually the reformed magnetic medicine of Phineas Quimby.

In 1889, Charles Fillmore and Myrtle Fillmore founded the Unity School of Christianity as a community with a positive approach to life, an affirmation of the divinity of Christ in each person, and an acceptance of reincarnation. As you can see here, Unity was created from bits and pieces borrowed from other religions and traditions.

Another noteworthy arrival on the scene was Science of Mind founded by Ernest Holmes who was a popular writer and lecturer with an emphasis on positive thinking.

Case study: The Hidden History Positive Thinking .

Back to the future

Since the 1970’s , particularly in corporations, yes perhaps the most widely accepted doctrine of the "cult of positivity" the during the more recent  decades is the importance of setting big, audacious goals for an organization, while employees are encouraged (or compelled) to set goals that that are to take one example "SMART"-"Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely."

But also this pro-goal consensus is starting to crumble. For one thing, rigid goals may encourage employees to cut ethical corners.

Goals may even lead to underachievement.

Focusing on one goal at the expense of all other factors also can distort a corporate mission or an individual life. I fact behind our fixation on goals might be a deep unease with feelings of uncertainty.

Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, successful entrepreneurs often take stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagine the possible ends. Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.

The ultimate value of this may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by a craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.

 

The potential of intuition

There is however a case to be made for using intuition at times. Overall analytical decision-making is superior for important decisions. It is worth taking the time to consider evidence, statistics, and outcomes. Further, the analytical approach is the great equalizer- everyone can benefit from careful analysis. The exception to this is in situations where rapid complex decision-making is necessary for optimal or competitive performance, such as in some sports. Further, it is worth listening to your intuition, at least as a starting point. Your intuitive feelings are likely to give you useful information, but then I would back it up with some analysis, including for sources of bias. Intuition, also, seems to be highly dependent on expertise, but expertise is still no guarantee that intuition will be optimal.

 

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