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Screw Positive Thinking! Why Our Quest for Happiness Is Making Us Miserable

A new book by Oliver Burkeman paints an alternative path to happiness that has nothing to do with positive thinking.
 
 
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The man who claims that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio, and — according to the orange man — I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever.” I’m skeptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America’s “most popular business motivational seminar,” and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.

“So you wanna know?” asks the octogenarian, who is Dr. Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texas basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.

“Here it is, then,” Dr. Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading “MOTIVATE!” and “SUCCEED!,” seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. “Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.” Then he barks a single syllable — “Cut!” — and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘… the word ‘impossible’ out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!”

The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. “You are the master of your destiny!” Schuller goes on. “Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! … Positive thinking works in every area of life!’

The logic of Schuller’s philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts — banish the spectres of sadness and failure — and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today’s seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours’ time, by George W . Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr. Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as “negativity thinking.” To criticize the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven’t really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.

The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase — with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms — hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. Staged roughly once a month, in cities across North America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner. Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism.