The Problem with Positive Thinking

For starters, it was invented by Donald Trump’s pastor.

Praying Barbie, you could buy one in the 1950s. It was a time of renewed faith and spirituality. Housewives were so happy, they slammed 1.2 million pounds of sedatives per year.

Anyone who procrastinated or cried too much ran the risk of being classified with an “Inadequate Personality” by a psychiatrist, and subjected to electroshock treatment.

Everybody lived in fear of the nuke.

Even little Donald Trump went to church, where he listened to sermons by the reverend Norman Vincent Peale — author of a book you may have heard of, .

Or as some know it, America’s Bible.

Trump has claimed regular attendance at Peale’s church for almost fifty years. Peale even performed the nuptials at Trump’s first wedding. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. Everyone who supports Trump, including himself, is a victim of positive thinking.

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Trump and Peale at the Waldorf Hotel in 1988. Source: NPR

Norman Vincent Peale opened his first clinic in New York in 1937, midway through the Great Depression. That’s when he began handing out pamphlets that asked,” Why am I unhappy about myself?” and promoting workshops on “Mental and Emotional Health,” with headlines like, “Are YOU interested in the problem of understanding yourself and others?”

See, Peale couldn’t solve the Great Depression — anymore than the Cold War. But he could sure do the magic trick of convincing Americans to think could solve these problems… by thinking happy thoughts.

The economic collapse of the 1930s was a huge boon for Peale, as described in Christopher Lane’s . Even when the economy began to improve, Peale’s clinic spilled over with new patients.

We developed a fear of the future that was very difficult to overcome… There was this constant dread.

— Ward James in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression

Peale’s book on positive thinking, the outcome of all his work with the downtrodden, has sold 5 million copies over the last six decades. It still sells roughly 20,000 copies a year.

Was Peale really that important?

Um, yeah…

He was a personal friend of presidents and entrepreneurs all over the country. He taught the Trumps everything they know about ignoring reality and surrounding yourself with sycophants.

When you say “one nation under God,” during the pledge of allegiance, that’s the work of a campaign backed by Peale.

Peale’s foundation partnered with pharmaceutical companies to prescribe “peace of mind” drugs to thousands of struggling Americans, meanwhile filling their heads with self-confidence and Jesus.

Peale even launched a daily TV program where he interviewed a troubled person, then referred them to a “panel of experts” who discussed the problem, with “Dr. Peale” offering the final word.

He was the first Dr. Phil.

The father of contemporary self-help made a killing off other people’s suffering and poor self-esteem. Meanwhile, psychologists and priests alike warned positive thinking, calling it a dangerous shortcut to happiness. Even back then, they told us simple “8-step formulas” and guidebooks promising to eradicate self-doubt would ruin America.

Positive thinking sounds great, but it hasn’t done us any favors. We’re a nation full of hard workers who can’t accept tough realities like climate change or economic and social inequality.

We’re told never to take no for an answer.

Never give up.

Never doubt yourself.

You can have whatever you want, as long as you believe in yourself and go to church. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough or, worse, you doubted yourself for a minute.

Just listen to Peale himself. It’s hard not to listen to this and actually feel like you can, in fact, do anything, regardless of any reality:

And yet, “never take no for an answer” has a dark shadow. It’s not the thought-process of a mature, emotionally-stable adult. It’s the logic of rapists and trophy hunters, espoused by tyrants who found their way back to power through fear and hate-mongering.

Positive thinking was designed to pump up white men, and explain away all the poor homeless people as simply giving into failure.

Consider this bit from :

Once when Stonewall Jackson planned a daring attack, one of his generals fearfully objected, saying: “I am afraid of this,” or ‘I fear that…” Putting his hand on his timorous subordinate’s shoulder, Jackson said, “General, never take counsel of your fears.” The secret is to fill your mind with thoughts of faith, confidence, and security. This will force out or expel all thoughts of doubt…

Apparently Peale expelled from his mind that Stonewall Jackson fought for a nation that wanted to preserve slavery. He also expelled the historical fact that Jackson was shot by his own troops, lost an arm, and then died eight days later from pneumonia.

Oh, and the Confederacy fell apart…

But facts shouldn’t bother you, according to Peale:

Any fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless, is not so important as our attitude towards that fact. How you think about a fact may defeat you before you ever do anything about it.

We’re told this is a recipe for success, when it’s actually driving us crazy. And no wonder. The reality is you have whatever you want. You feel like crap some days. You people to tell you when you’re wrong, or when you should give up on a dream and try something else.

Some facts are bigger than us. Celebrities like Peale always bury the lead. Sure, you can’t let facts shut you down.

But you do, you know, have to actually about them. You have to solve them. Or accept them.

Ejecting doubt from your mind doesn’t actually make your problems any smaller, or less complicated.

But Donald Trump himself, along with plenty of other politicians and contemporary peddlers of prosperity gospel, have convinced themselves of his point. Trump even admitted to his own biographer, Michael D’Antonio, “I don’t want to think about [the meaning of my life] because I might not like what I see.” That’s positive thinking for you.

I don’t want to think about [the meaning of my life] because I might not like what I see.

— Donald Trump

It’s strange to trace all this back to a single Manhattan preacher telling poor people how to feel better about themselves. And yet, it’s true. Norman Vincent Peale had help, but he catalyzed an industry that keeps the 1 percent in power while ensuring anyone with mental, physical, or emotional problems only blames themselves and their lack of confidence.

According to Peale, positive thinking could cure seizures — even homosexuality. Apparently both stemmed from a deep emotional sickness and hostility toward others.

Peale’s answer? Be nicer to people.

Erase negative thoughts from your mind. Develop a peaceful mental state by sitting quietly for fifteen minutes a day:

Everyone should insist upon not less than a quarter of an hour of absolute quiet every twenty-four hours. Do not talk to anyone. Do not write. Do not read. Think as little as possible… Scientific experiments show that noise in the place where we work, live, or sleep reduces efficiency to a noticeable degree.

For example, as I write these words, I am on a balcony of one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, the Royal Hawaiian on the famed Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am looking into a garden filled with graceful palm trees, swaying in the balmy breeze.

Feeling anxious? Depressed? Obviously, you should travel to Hawaii so you can sit in total silence and watch graceful palm trees. Tell yourself how great you are. Pray more. Visualize your success.

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Trump at Norman Vincent Peale’s 90th birthday party in 1988. Source: Inside Hook

In his books and countless articles, Peale fused religion with self-help psychology and business-speak, talking about “mergers with God,” and ushering forth a culture where clergy described themselves as salesmen, and Jesus as a business manager. Faith led to financial success, and financial success proved your faith.

Even before , Peale was publishing barrages of articles like “Formula for Eliminating Worry,” which read as if they were written yesterday by a 20-something blogger.

He even talks about morning routines and productivity. Take this bit from a chapter titled, “How to Have Constant Energy,” which includes interviews with famous and successful men— or their wives:

Mrs. Thomas A. Edison, with whom I often discussed the habits and characteristics of her famous husband, the world’s greatest inventive wizard, told me that it was Mr. Edison’s custom to come into the house from his laboratory after many hours of labor and lie down on his old couch…After three or four, sometimes five hours he would become instantly wide awake, completely refreshed, and eager to return to his work… In him there were no obsessions, no disorganizations, no conflicts, no mental quirks, no emotional instability. He worked until he needed to sleep, then he slept soundly and arose and returned to his work… He drew his energy from emotional self-mastery, and the ability to relax completely.

This kind of thinking remains alive and well in the world of entrepreneurship. It’s become more subtle, less overtly religious. It still ignores circumstances, health or otherwise. What’s changed? The names. Instead of Thomas Edison’s habits, we’re looking at Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

But wait, there’s more…

Peale doesn’t just gush over Edison’s boundless energy. He uses the same logic to justify longer shifts for factory workers:

A friend of mine, an industrialist in a large plant in Ohio…declares that if a worker will work in harmony with the rhythm of his machine he will not be tired at the end of the day. He points out that the machine is an assembling of parts according to the law of God… It is one with the rhythm of the body, of the nerves, of the soul. It is God’s rhythm… So to avoid tiredness and to have energy, feel your way into the essential rhythm of Almighty God and all His works.

Maybe Jeff Bezos needs to give his workers a copy of . See, if they just got into a better rhythm, they’d never feel tired, no matter how many hours they spent sorting packages.

There’s another takeaway here, of course. The authors who sing the praises of millionaires and accuse us of being lazy are themselves phoning it in. They’re using a 60-year-old book as a template to make money off telling us how to live. Seems a little lazy to me…

The most recent research in psychology recommends the approach to positive thinking. Turns out, you can’t just “let go” of negative thoughts, like some claim.

Judging yourself for feeling negative emotions can actually make things worse, according to a 2018 study published in the . The authors confirm prior research, all of which point to the same idea — you can’t run from your emotions. You can’t simply eject doubt and insecurity from your mind.

Not successfully, at least.

Forcing yourself to think happy thoughts actually diminishes our emotional health, and makes us more vulnerable to stress.

Faking confidence and lying to yourself doesn’t make you more successful, just an insufferable jerk.

Literally can spout platitudes about positive thinking, persistence, and commitment. It always plays well.

Donald Trump is never so eloquent as when he echoes his pastor, Norman Vincent Peale. It taps right into the American psyche:

Superficial popularity doesn’t make you right. And neither does simply telling everyone what they want to hear. If you’re sad, anxious, or just pissed off, you need to feel those emotions and let yourself reflect.

You have to acknowledge a setback or failure. You have to steep in your darkness for a while. Only then does it make any sense to pick yourself up and start working on your situation.

This explains why we all hate it sometimes when our friends or family try to make us feel better about something. Actually, we just want to feel sad or pissed off for a moment.

Give us a minute…

Sometimes we’re tired because we’re actually , not because our minds need to get in harmony with our shitty jobs.

Some of the self-help advice out there honestly wants us to live better lives on our own terms, to figure out what really makes us content and then to go for it, the best we can.

We have to accept circumstances and limitations. But we also have to interrogate ourselves — to wonder if we’re capable of just a little more. Not to please some industrialist in Ohio.

Not to make a million dollars.

Sometimes we have to give up in order to be happy. We have to take no for an answer. We have to bow out when we know we’re not qualified. True emotional maturity is knowing when to quit, and when to stick it out for just a little longer.

We can do more than just survive, or kill ourselves making a ton of cash for someone else — who’ll pretend like they did it all by themselves. We can find our purpose, build meaningful relationships, and pursue a life with hopefully more ups than downs.

We can read philosophy.

We can go to therapy.

We can take drugs to manage our conditions.

We can tell our boss , we’re not going to go play along with their overly optimistic recruitment strategy.

Unlike Trump, we can take a hard look at ourselves — and our situations — and decide what changes to make.

We can acknowledge that some people really need professional support and care, and we don’t have to blame them.

We can demand that anyone who makes a fortune do more than just share personal success stories, but actually pay their fair share of taxes — so we can make things like healthcare and education affordable.

We can demand better leaders than Trump, who would feed you to a lion if it made him richer, or more popular.

Most importantly, we can climb out of Peale’s fantasy land and look at the reality we all face as a species. We can stop closing our eyes and wishing for a unicorn to suddenly appear in our back yard, and fly us off to a heaven filled with beautiful virgins and piles of gold everywhere. This is the only life we get, and the only world. It doesn’t come with unicorns. It wasn’t put here just for us, but we do need to take care of it.

Written by

She’s the funny one. jessica.wildfire.writer@gmail.com

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