The Perils of Positive Thinking

Why self help almost never equals self improvement

By Max Fawcett – Illustration by Yarek Wazu

It seems almost incomprehensible to me now, like waking up with the vague recollection of an unsettling dream, but I was actually looking forward to my thirtieth birthday. I approached the milestone with what I thought at the time was a commendably mature perspective, at peace with both the occasionally messy experiences of the decade that was about to pass and the more sophisticated pleasures that I presumed were to come. I promised myself that there would be no self-indulgent outbursts of those-were-the-days melancholy, nor any last-gasp partying to excess that attempted to relive them.

It didn’t take long to break those promises, though. I woke up on the first day of my thirties wedged into a friend’s armchair in her apartment in Vancouver’s downtown east-side, and a quick survey of both the room and my own physical condition revealed that I hadn’t celebrated the end of my twenties with the reserve I had intended to display. My wallet was absent the $200 that I had foolishly placed in it the previous afternoon, and the pictures stored on my cell phone’s camera reminded me that I’d spent the latter part of the evening hanging out with someone dressed in a Santa Claus costume who hadn’t just gotten off his shift at the nearby mall.

In the days that followed, I quickly fell into a depressive fugue, and while part of that may have been the result of Vancouver’s suicide-inducing winter climate it was also a reflection of the realization on my part that my thirties would be less about bravely exploring new horizons and more about repairing the damage that I’d done in my twenties. I could no longer ignore the imperatives that were being issued in increasingly shrill tones by my conspicuously empty retirement savings account, my expanding gut, or my growing sense of personal and professional failure. It was time for some serious me-work.

In retrospect, though, my epiphany about turning 30 and the regular regimen of gym attendance, healthier eating, and self-righteous narcissism that it yielded was a predictable, and profitable, reaction. Self-improvement is a big business in North America, and the industry and its collection of neo-spiritual gurus, five-minute workout programs and fad diet plans grosses over $8 billion each year. There might be no place for religion in the public square (in Canada, at least) but self-improvement is an altar at which everyone can agree to worship.

The relationship between faith and self-improvement is a longstanding one. In fact, the self-improvement industry is rooted in it. Its importance was first expressed by the New Thought movement of the early twentieth century, whose proponents argued that “positive thinking,” a kind of alliance between the power of God and the skills of man, could actually improve one’s outcomes in life. Those ideas were the foundation of Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking, a first-generation self-improvement treatise that sold over 5 million copies and whose ideas echo prominently in The Secret, the most popular self-help book of the 21st century.

The relationship between faith and self-improvement moved with the times, and as North American culture moved away from the buttoned-down conformism of the 1940s and 1950s and towards the more open-minded experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s, so too did the people peddling personal improvement.  Thomas Harris’s “I’m OK, you’re OK,” which was published in 1969 and ended up selling over 15 million copies worldwide, reflected the wishy-washy spiritual smorgasbord from which an expanding circle of people were sampling. At its core was a separation of emotions and responsibilities, a reflection of those times if there ever was one, and in so doing created an entire generation of victims and an industry that catered to that belief.

In its most recent reincarnation, one that again reflects the cultural climate in which it exists, the self-improvement industry has shifted its focus away from victimization and towards empowerment, from total helplessness to complete omnipotence. Yet while the messaging changed, the linkage between religion and self-improvement that informed it remained as strong as ever. Fittingly enough, as an evangelical movement swept across America’s religious communities, its self-improvement gurus adopted a similarly evangelical approach. For every Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart there is now a Tony Robbins, a Werner Erhard, or a Dr. Phil pushing their own doctrine of personal salvation, complete with their own personal collection plate in the form of instructional DVDs, weekend seminars, and a factory’s worth of branded merchandise.

Yet for the millions of books that have been sold and the billions of dollars that have passed through the balance sheets of this uniquely North American industry, it doesn’t appear to be doing much for the people it promises to help. This might be good for their bottom lines – as the New York times noted wryly in a 2003 article on Tony Robbins, “titans in the field may preach self-reliance, but the self-help industry thrives on repeat business” – but it’s not doing much for the people that are keeping them healthy. After all, as Greg Critser points out in his 2003 book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, more than a generation’s worth of faddish weight-loss programs have done nothing to slow the alarming expansion of America’s collective waistline.

Worse still, as British author and academic Dr. Neel Burton argues in The Art of Failure: An Anti Self-Help Guide, these well-meaning efforts at self-improvement might actually amount to the psychological equivalent of self-inflicted wounds. “These books prevent us from knowing ourselves, and what we get in the end is basically a nervous breakdown,” Burton says. “We know that in the Untied States, for example, ten per cent of the population is on anti-depressants and a significantly higher proportion of the population is on other psychotropic medication. Why is that?”

The answer, Burton believes, lies in the fact that the average self-improvement treatise encourages the belief that personal happiness is the product of sculpted abs, nicer clothes, or more personal wealth. Those are dangerous distractions, he argues, from the true source of human happiness, our relationships with others. “We don’t pay enough attention to our human relationships, and we don’t treat our human relationships with the respect and consideration that they deserve. We’d be much happier if we focused more on them, on our relationships with our friends, our family, and our partners.”

Ultimately, Burton says, the true path to happiness doesn’t lie in thinking positively or mimicking the seven habits of highly effective people but instead in cultivating a greater self-awareness. He believes that our estrangement from that awareness, and our increasingly manic obsession with all things us, represent a departure from our natural instincts as human beings. “In traditional cultures, people lived in very close knit communities. They knew each other, and they didn’t really focus on themselves so much. The focus on life was on the survival community and not on their own individuality. Modern society is very different from that. There’s a huge emphasis on me; my goals, my life, my death. That puts a lot of pressure on people, and it’s not the kind of pressure that we’re evolved to cope with. That’s the source of many of our problems.”

In most cases those problems are limited to some combination of time wasted, money frittered, pills popped, and misery multiplied, but they were downright mortal for the students of one James Arthur Ray, a nationally know self-help guru. On October 8, 2009, after a 36-hour “vision quest” in the desert, Ray led his approximately 50 students, many of whom were dangerously dehydrated and all of whom had paid as much as $9,695 to participate in the so-called “Spirit Warrior” event, into a 20-by-20-foot makeshift sweat lodge.

Two hours later, after an intense session in which Ray alternated between pouring water on the rocks to intensify the heat and encouraging his suffering students to push past their “self-imposed and conditioned borders,” three of them were dead and more than dozen were seriously injured. As Christine Whelan recounted weeks later in the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Chronicle, “at the conclusion, seemingly unaware of the bodies of the unconscious lying around him, Ray emerged triumphantly, witnesses said, because he had passed his own endurance test.”

I was spared the torments of some self-improvement entrepreneur’s murderous sweat-lodge, and while I’d like to pretend that the reason for that is the sheer impossibility of becoming dehydrated during a Vancouver winter, the truth of the matter is that I have my friends to thank. Over the course of a few particularly well-lubricated conversations we shared our insecurities, discovering not only that we all shared the same set of fears and insecurities – what we referred to as the Turning 30 Existential Starter Kit – but that what we regarded as flaws others viewed as humanizing and attractive quirks.

This is a critical point, I think, and one that is almost never mentioned by any of the self-styled gurus and advice peddlers whose numbers have exploded on the internet at a rate exceeded only by pornographic websites and disarmingly generous Nigerian bankers. We are advised to do everything from improving our table manners to shaving our nether-regions in the circular quest for self-improvement, but we are rarely encouraged to embrace our flaws or to indulge our imperfections. This cultural mania for self-improvement, as though we’re perpetual projects on the way to becoming perfectible beings, is most graphically represented by reality starlet Heidi Montag’s monstrous transformation into the human equivalent of a blow-up doll. The nearly-naked truth, of course, is that Montag is the furthest thing from human, and the more she chases perfection the further she puts herself from it. It is our imperfections that make us human, and not the other way around.

Ironically, as Dr. Burton shared with me during our interview, the idea of embracing our flaws rather than trying to bench press them out of existence, is a form of wisdom as old as society itself. Inscribed on the Temple of Apollo, the revered site where leaders of the ancient Greek world would consult the Oracle of Delphi on any matter of significance, is one particularly important phrase: “know thyself.” To bend an old cliché, when it comes to the self-improvement industry truer words have never since been spoken.

6 Responses to The Perils of Positive Thinking

  1. Pingback: Q & A with Neel Burton, the Author of the Art of Failure: An Anti Self-Help Guide « Unlimited Magazine

  2. Michael says:

    All true and insightful… to a point, because there do exist “new-age” belief systems and practices that fully embrace personal responsibility and acceptance of the “shadow self”.

    The feel-good-happy-face people capitalize on the natural desire to feel good and to have a happy face. :) . True spiritual teachers acknowledge that real evolution can be shattering and painful at times, but still eventually leading to a solid state of well-being.

    Personal development should cost something, but not $10,000 and not risk of being steamed to death like a lobster – but such is the nature of free will and discernment.

  3. Howard Schumann says:

    You are sadly mistaken if you attempt to include Werner Erhard in the same group as Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil. Werner’s programs such as est and the Landmark Forum were and are rigorous personal experiences in which participants discover who they really are. Nothing is taught.

    There is no information provided. It is basically an experience of the self by the self. The result is an increased ability to function in life, to achieve the goals you set for yourself, and to inspire others to do likewise. It is apparent that you have never taken any of these programs or you would not be writing such misinformation.

  4. Jessie says:

    I have to disagree with your use of Montag as a stalking horse, calling her “the furthest thing from human.” She typifies the very thing you describe happens to many people, who are full of insecurities. She just acted on these insecurities in an extreme manner, possibly due to Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I don’t think it’s fair to use someone like her to assert your argument, when she is clearly not “all there.” If she were, she wouldn’t have done that to her body.

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