Analyzing The Positive Thinking Movement

All psychotherapies, most psychiatric drugs, and every mass self-help movement for the last half-century have sought to instill one thought or experience -- "What, me worry?"
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All psychotherapies, most psychiatric drugs, and every mass self-help movement for the last half-century have sought to instill one thought or experience -- "What, me worry?"

More broadly, they have all tried to get Americans to lighten up, to realize that they are in a relatively good place (the Americans in bad places -- i.e., poor Americans -- don't receive therapy, take meds, or join self-help and support groups) -- in short, to look on the bright side.

Don't believe me? Let's review.

Positive Thinking
. The first mega-self-help best seller of the second half of the twentieth century was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale's (no relation) Power of Positive Thinking. If ever a book title explained itself, this is it. But, in case you missed its point, here is one of its cherished quotes - "When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade." C'mon - you've heard that before - maybe even used it - at least to yourself? Power was published in 1952, but has been reprinted ad infinitum. If you search the title, you will find any number of contemporary Web sites perpetuating its wisdom.

EST. You remember EST, don't you? -- (Werner) Erhard Seminars Training. Begun in 1971, conducted over two weekends, EST persuaded you to - think positively. To subjugate your worries. Mind over matter. What is - is - deal with it. When I encountered a woman whose cat got stuck in a tree, she anxiously told me -- "This is exactly what I went to EST for -- so I can approach this calmly -- to think 'What is the worst that can happen?' " (At this point, her eyes went blank with fear.) EST held sway over America for exactly a decade, becoming something like a mass cult. It then moved on from curing America's malaise to solving world hunger. Well, one out of two ain't bad.

I'm not going to have time to go over every best-selling, mind-cult, mass movement. So I'll just list a couple -- Psycho-Cybernetics (no jokes off this name now -- it was my mother's favorite). Eastern philosophy - e.g., Zen Buddhism (William Bartley's bio of Erhard made clear how indebted to Zen he was). Scientology is really warmed over Peale (although L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics was actually published before Power, in 1950), with spacecraft and auditing. Life simplification -- where, but in America, could you develop a series of books and support groups for the purpose of giving your stuff away?

CBT. All of the previous descriptions might make the philosophy of thinking positively and believing you control your destiny, and in doing so reducing anxiety and life complications, sound sketchy. But the most important psychotherapeutic movement of the 20th century - cognitive behavioral therapy (of which I am a card-carrying member) - trains people to do essentially these things. For example, to eliminate depression, you focus on the positives in your life, which then allows you to get off your butt to do the essential things your life requires of you to sustain yourself, even achieve satisfaction.

Medications. If you study the history of addictive drugs, you quickly see that the most addictive are all anti-anxiety meds and substances - even alcohol, certainly narcotics, barbiturates, tranquilizers, Oxy, et al. People don't tend to become addicted to psychedelics, and stimulants only work to the extent that they get your mind off of your problems because you are so hyped up. Antidepressants, of course, ushered in an entirely new era in drugs. These meds strive to detach the sad-worried vibes created in your brain by your concerns about your life. You can name what's worrying and depressing you, but your happy nerve endings are turned on. So you're happppy!!!!

I need to say that I am not actually mocking all of these movements, therapies, and medications. They are obviously essential to our existences (and I, for one, make a living around them). What I am noting about us as Americans are the psychic costs of prolonged prosperity and entitlement, combined with a Protestant work (and worry) ethic, which feeds into a peculiarly American self-improvement mania. But these things mean we can never get to the source of our discontents - they are culturally inbred. The real question is whether the coming economic abyss and loss of world control will exacerbate or ameliorate the dark forces inside us.

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