A few years ago, I met a woman who was overweight and whose husband was cheating on her. Her solution to this was to stand in front of a mirror several times a day and say this affirmation: "I am beautiful and I am loved." Eventually, she joined weightwatchers and divorced him, but not before she had faced up to the reality that she was less beautiful (and healthy) than she could and wanted to be, and that he did not love her (although others surely did).
Barbara Ehrenreich has written a great piece of investigative and critical journalism titled "Bright-sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America". (Swedish translation: "Gilla läget. Hur allt gick åt helvete med positivt tänkande.") Here she explores the worlds of support groups for cancer patients, motivational courses in corporations, God-wants-you-to-be-rich-evangelism, positive psychology and personal coaching. She digs into the past and displays the roots of positive thinking, that was a reaction to, but at the same time is the heir of, the old calvinist protestantism that was so influential in the shaping of the american, and much of today´s western, society.
There is nothing wrong in being positive in a general way, of course. What Ehrenreich is exporing here, however, is advanced mind-control, suggestion and self-delusion in the service of the capitalist system. This is about making people believe that they can have infinite success (money), as long as the believe hard enough that they will. And the flip-side of the coin: if you fail, it´s your own fault.
There are a lot of gurus out there today that say our thoughts alone can make things happen. Magical thinking. Undoubtedly, it can sometimes seem like things happen this way. Usually, however, our fortune is the result of hard and focused work. And when it´s not, we can be just plain lucky. Nothing wrong with that. But I suspect the force of God is actually us being creative. In our plans and actions, in our way of interpreting what happens to us, in the way that we turn something unexpected into something great. In the way we tell ourselves the story of our lives.
Any real change begins with an honest assessment of where you are. Then you need a clear vision of where you want to be. A map of your situation, an inventory of your resources. Then you can get creative. And make some real change. That´s what I believe and I´m happy to see that Ehrenreich has a similar view. I do think, though, that sometimes we are not entirely aware of our efforts. In times of chaos, depression, distraction, we can loose sight of the goals we once had, the plans we once made. Still, we work towards them as long as we do not consciously change direction. And when we "suddenly" find ourselves in that place we dreamed of, it may seem like magic.
The die-hard believers of positive thinking will not find their way to this book. But it´s a great read for anyone who gets a bit uncomfortable every time the boss arranges a "kick-off" and makes everyone listen to some old olympic medalist now touring with the story of how he became a success, or an ex-drug addict cheering "if I can make it, so can you". A healthy dose of cynicism might keep you sane.