In which I find myself reacting against positive thinking…

…there is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure. Having trouble finding a mate? Nothing is more attractive to potential suitors than a positive attitude, or more repellent than a negative one. Need money? Wealth is one of the principal goals of positive thinking. There are hundreds of self-help books expounding on how positive thinking can “attract” money – a method supposedly so reliable that you are encouraged to begin spending it now. Practical problems such as low wages and unemployment are mentioned only as potential “excuses”. The real obstacle lies in your mind.

I read this today in an article in the weekend Guardian by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of a new book entitled ‘Smile or die, how positive thinking fooled America and the world‘, and ‘Bright Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America ‘. I have read neither books, but they appear to be part of an increasingly vocal critique of a certain kind of ‘positive-speak’ found in so much self-help material, life coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT.)

Positive-thinking is a dominant idea that has spread far beyond pyramid selling schemes or Oprah-like self help. It has persisted in cancer treatment, despite contrary research and is force fed to employees at almost every team meeting. It has also found it’s way into our churches, and mingled with fundamentalism to create a kind of unassailable world view that pushes up more than one mega church.

It is something I have been thinking about recently- for several reasons. Firstly, I have practised as a CBT therapist, and so know a lot about the strengths and limitations of ‘positivity’. CBT has a strong wind behind it at the moment in almost every sphere of human activity. In my field (psychiatry) it has more or less replaced all other forms of talking treatments.

However the second reason for my interest and pre-occupation comes from my own introspection. Like most people who are of a sensitive, somewhat artistic, creative bent, I can be somewhat mercurial. More than this, it could perhaps be said that I tend towards the melancholic. It is who I am. At times, I struggle with the consequences of this, but after many years of counselling (on both sides of the ‘couch’,) I know myself well enough to understand where this comes from, and to understand something of the strengths and weaknesses that I am skewed towards. It is the engine for much that is good, including my creativity, and ability to see the need in others.

Along the way, I have met many people who have set themselves on a determined path of self advancement and fulfilment- often fuelled by charismatic and inspirational speaking from other shiny high achievers who exhort you to step forward into a brighter more fulfilled future, just like they did. Some of them may even have achieved this- although this often seems to require quasi-religious self delusion. Many others feel guilty and worthless because they fall short of these plastic-fantastic ideals.

What is the harm in encouraging people to think beyond their limitations and reach out for something better- more hopeful, more vitalising and fulfilling? There is good here I think…

But still, what I find myself asking, is whether the dominance of positivity can also have a negative impact on our society?

I have always felt curiously ill at ease with faced with it- recognising other people’s apparent certainty in the benefit of positive outlooks and attitudes, whilst always wanting to add a big ‘BUT….’

Others are not so reticent in their willingness to critique this dominant world view. Perhaps this is in part a political/economic critique- this from another Guardian article, entitled ‘Welcome to the bright new world of positive living’-

In an economy overseen by optimists, house prices would always go up, stock markets would never crash. Positive thinking became not just the language of the mainstream but, on both sides of the Atlantic, political dogma and economic principle too. An ideology that originated in America has fanned out across the English-speaking world, and from there to everywhere else, hand-in-hand with the doctrine of free-market economics.

It’s globalisation by any other name, according to Eric Wilson, a professor of English, who wrote a book called Against Happiness . “The self-help movement has attempted to commodify experience,” he tells me. “It’s intimately tied into capitalism. Buy this package and, almost like a technology, it will move you forward with the goal of a trouble-free life.”

The article also quotes Oliver James, psychoanalyst and author of books such as ‘Affluenza‘.

“It’s snake oil,” he says, “and I explicitly reject it. Positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy and the idea that anybody can be anyone are American ideas involving what’s basically a sort of magical thinking. The purest example is The Secret, which is a disgraceful book. It’s just wicked really. It doesn’t have any kind of basis whatsoever. It says: if you want something you just have to wish for it, like my four-year-old does. It’s a kind of psychology for toddlers.”

For James, the push towards positive thinking has been bound up in a certain kind of economic world view, characterised by this kind of way of living-

The quasi-religious dominance of positivity has perhaps become a distraction or worse a justification of this way of living, that borrows selectively from world religions-particularly Buddhism and Christianity- to make a new heresy that simply fits better in a fast moving corporate world.

But moving away from Macro economic forces and back to the individual level- how about those folk whose lives appear to have been genuinely transformed by the power of positive thinking?

Good luck to you I say. May your life be blessed, in order that you in turn my bless others. I would also caution these people by suggesting that not everyone is like them. Not everyone will benefit from being squeezed into their narrow mindset, which to others can easily become an oppressive mental straight jacket.

There is suffering in this world.

And pain.

And sickness.

And imperfection.

And failure.

And brokenness.

And weakness.

And depression.

And periods when nothing seems to make sense.

And finally, there  is death.

(But in the middle of all of this- there is Grace.)

I would contend that these things define our humanity. They are not things to be suppressed and denied as invalid or minor irritants. They might be things to embrace, to acknowledge or to allow to shape a different form of transformation- one based not on achievement or success, but rather based on a counter cultural world view given to us by Jesus in Matthew chapter 5. Where the weak and poor find blessing, and the first are last and the last first.

And strength is made perfect- in weakness.

There is in me, I have to acknowledge, a skew towards the poor and weak. I think this is most congruent with trying to live in the way of Jesus. I think he told us to focus on the needs we see in others all around us- and he certainly did not promise a trouble free life. But in all this, I acknowledge that we continue to hope for transformation, and healing. We need to inspire hope in those around us  for something new, and better.

But the measure of this ‘better thing’ is too often seen in a kind of ‘success’ that turns my stomach. It is far too much about ‘me’ and tends to make a commodity out of ‘you’.

Perhaps too often, it brings me to this!

The spiritual discipline of no longer coping…


If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your own pleasures, your own ways of coping, and follow the way of the cross.

Walk close with me…

If you insist on saving your life- you will just end up losing it.

You will just end up WASTING it.

Only those who are prepared to lose it all for my sake, and for the sake of my Kingdom, will ever know what it really means to LIVE…

From Mark 8:34-35.

Heres a question: Is it possible that the things we do to enable us to survive, or to socialise-even to succeed- easily become the seeds of our downfall? Perhaps the stuff that insulates us from one another, and from God?

I have thought about this a lot. It is one of those many areas where my understanding of God has been enhanced by my work with people who have mental health problems.

You see, perhaps the most influential therapeutic approach today is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT encourages us to look at the way our thoughts, emotions, actions and physical sensations interact to form repetitive feedback loops that can be enslaving and extremely difficult to escape.

That is not to say that these loops are always dysfunctional. The truth is, much of how we engage with the world about us seems to be built on these things. We find ways, sometimes at a very early age, of managing the interface with the stresses and strains of life, and these tend to just continue into adulthood. For most of the time, this is just how it is- we do not need to examine this in any detail.

One of the things that CBT therapists will look for as we try to help people are ‘safety behaviours’. These are the things we do to enable us to get through. Of particular significance, and introducing the most complication, are those things we get into to cope with SOCIAL risks- that most subtle of human response to the risk of exposure, ridicule an embarrassment.

For some people, the safety behaviours may be highly damaging- drugs, alcohol, dependency on sex, or imprisonment in abusive relationships. For some, violence and anger become their defining emotion- enabling them always to be right.

For many of us, they may include more manageable, but still potentially unhelpful ways of keeping the world at bay- food, stuff that makes us feel good for a while, possessions, the pursuit of recognition and significance…

Then there are even more of us who appear to be doing OK. We have our things, our successes, and our projects. We know where we are going, more or less, and who we are going there with. We can cope with most of what life throws at us, because we are moving on our own tram lines- we have bought a ticket, and the only way is forward…

For those of us in the latter group, it is often only CRISIS that makes us take stock.

That makes us look at the safety behaviours we wrap ourselves in, and ask whether they are worth holding on to.

When I look at the passage above from Mark’s gospel, I wonder if Jesus knew all about this. I wonder if he understood that life lived for nothing is no life at all. That life insulated from people and from God is a lesser existence. That life where safety-comes-first will only ever be half life.

So I wondered about the need for us all to STOP coping.

To stop being in control.

To step outside the treadmill of the expected, the predictable, the manageable.

Into the great glorious unknown.

Where God is.