the secret

Accentuate the positive?

A few months ago, I read Bright-Sided, the latest book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a great writer – she also wrote Nickel and Dimed, a must read for anyone in the American workforce today.

In Bright-Sided, she rails against what she feels is a “relentless promotion of positive thinking.” I completely get her point here: in the last few years, “positive thinking” has become, in some ways, its own religion.

The huge success of the book The Secret is but a small part of this trend. It’s a new book, though a concept like imagining your success has been around for centuries and was a tenet of Wiccan ritual.

Business books have been filled with this kind of don’t-let-the-dark-clouds-in mentality for decades. And even religious figures have co-opted this line of thinking; Joel Osteen’s church focuses on positive thinking and the idea that God rewards your positive thoughts and makes you wealthy.

Ehrenreich’s most compelling statement about this trend relates to her own life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and went online to find resources about the disease. She sought support from other women online.

Her hope was to find a space where she could express her feelings and fears honestly and where she could ask questions about what was happening to her and why. What she found was a community that celebrated “the gift of cancer” and a world filled with pink teddy bears.

Everyone copes in their own way, of course. And I get her frustration. When she tried to talk candidly about her fears, she was told to think positive; when she challenged that wisdom, she was shunned by the community, who didn’t want her ideas to cloud the space they’d made for themselves.

Ehrenreich makes a great case against mindless optimism, born of blind faith and in the absence of logic or reality. She suggests that realism – a balanced view of the world that acknowledges genuine, organic positives and negatives – is the best way to go.

Here’s the thing, though: I really believe positive thinking and a positive, supportive atmosphere can make a difference in people’s lives. It certainly did in mine.

I was a creative kid with a streak of eccentricity and a vivid imagination. (Yeah, I know – some things never change.) I grew up in a fairly traditional atmosphere, and I was very different from the friends and family that surrounded me.

Out of what was undoubtedly great love and concern for me (mixed with their own fears), most of the people in my life tried to encourage me to follow a traditional path, and didn’t respond in a positive way to those head-in-the-cloud ideas.

Several years ago, I moved to the Midwest and met a few friends that changed my life. They weren’t members of a self-help group or a cult, nor did they change my life in any organized, structured way.

It was simple: The narrative before had been “gee, that’s not such a great idea,” or, “no, you don’t want to do that.” Suddenly, it became “Wow, that sounds like a great idea!” Or, because I was so often filled with fear at trying even those most minor new thing, “Don’t be afraid! You should try this!”

I don’t mean to make these specific people sound like magicians (though I am grateful to them). I’m simply trying to illustrate that the narrative I heard from others (and in my head) changed.

Did it work? Well, the growth in my life in those years has been immense.

I’d put my efforts at writing on the shelf in my 20s, after college ended. But in 2005, a few years after my move, I started getting my work published. I was asked by the local newspaper to create my own blog in 2007. The year after that, I was a full-time writer and my work was appearing…well, everywhere. (Including here.) And oh yeah,  I met my soulmate and partner….who literally walked into my life.

I understand why Ehrenreich isn’t a fan of mindless positive thinking. It’s a tricky balance, after all. (Anyone who’s seen the initial auditions of American Idol has seen people who were encouraged to do something that they never should have been!) Not everyone is meant to be an astronaut, or a figure skater, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so.

But I think positive thinking CAN be a valuable tool. It often takes years to see results, and it requires thought and analysis along the way. But for many people, fear and negativity defeats us before we even start. Letting go of the fear, and allowing yourself the chance to fail, to learn and perhaps, to win can be scary. But I believe it’s so worth the effort.