From Oprah to Chopra: Is All This Positive Thinking Really Making Us Feel Better?

We've created a divorce culture equally obsessed with "positive thinking" and "neat solutions." Whether it's well-meaning friends and family or the divorce blogs, the conversation is the same: "Rah-rah" motivational stories and self-help tools for making yourself happy again.
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Woman holding head and screaming against blue background
Woman holding head and screaming against blue background

I must start this post with a mea culpa. I admit it, I've written about positive thinking during divorce. I'm as guilty as every other self-help writer in America who has prescribed affirmations, happy thoughts and goal-setting. I'm ready for detox, however. I'm at the point where I can hardly stand to open a book or article with the title "Happiness," "Fulfillment," "Success" or "Motivation," (along with some number of steps to attain it). I'm officially switching sides and joining forces with British journalist, Oliver Burkeman, who is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

My husband gave me Burkeman's book for Christmas and it's a real eye-opener. Burkeman examines the positive-thinking/self-help movement that has swept through the United States and Great Britain over the past twenty years. He questions whether it has been effective. His conclusions? (Brace yourself:)

1.The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.

2.Visualizing your goals doesn't seem to make you more likely to achieve them.

3.Research strongly suggests that self-help books rarely help much. And self-help gurus tend to make claims that simply aren't supported by more reputable research. In fact, the "happiest" countries (according to all surveys) are never those where self-help books sell the most.

4.It is our constant efforts to eliminate and avoid the negative -- insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness -- that cause us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

5.The path to genuine happiness requires contemplation of life's struggles and an examination and acceptance of the deeper mysteries and uncertainties in life -- not "one-size-fits-all self-help tricks or ten-point plans."

6.Affirmations -- such as telling yourself "I am a lovable person" or "Every day, in every way, I am getting better"-- are not just harmless exercises. Research shows that they can result in one feeling less self-esteem and feeling less lovable.

7.Venting your anger doesn't get rid of it.

8.Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief take the longest to recover from their loss.

9.Overall, this national obsession with "positive thinking" and "getting motivated" is making people feel worse and making them less motivated and productive.

10.At a national level, this pervasive message that "all things are possible through an effort of mind" has seemingly contributed to political and business crises such as the Bush Administration's foreign policy, the global financial crisis of the late 2000s and the over-extension of homebuyers who sought mortgages they were unable to repay. This irrational optimism -- fueled by self-help gurus, seminar organizers, and books (like The Secret) -- has created political and business leaders (as well as everyday citizens) who lose "the capacity to distinguish between their ego-fueled dreams and concrete results."

Depressing? Actually, I found it comforting. It was like one of those moments in life when your best friend cuts through all the bullshit you've fed yourself about a particular issue, and although your friend's razor-sharp insight stings at first, it's a relief to finally hear the truth. There's something about the truth that we all recognize when we hear it. Our soul gives a quiet sigh of relief, knowing that our denial and rationalization are unraveling and we can start solving the problem because, finally, we can identify what the problem is.

Burkeman's message isn't that optimism is a bad idea. "Optimism is wonderful; goals can sometimes be useful; even positive thinking and positive visualization have their benefits. The problem is that we have developed the habit of chronically overvaluing positivity and the skills of 'doing' in how we think about happiness, and that we chronically undervalue negativity and the 'not-doing' skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure. To use an old cliché of therapy-speak, we spend too much of our lives seeking 'closure.' ... [Instead, we should be] embracing imperfection and easing up on the search for neat solutions."

This statement got me thinking about divorce in America. It seems to me that we've created a divorce culture equally obsessed with "positive thinking" and "neat solutions." We're desperately trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Whether it's well-meaning friends and family or the divorce blogs, the conversation is the same: "Rah-rah" motivational stories and self-help tools for making yourself happy again.

There is certainly a time when such advice is useful, but I can't help wonder if this overriding "divorce positivity" is impeding the actual grief process and creating more anxiety and feelings of failure, the same way Burkeman has proven that all this goal-setting and happy talk are creating less happiness and less productivity.

After all, a divorce culture focused on "positive thinking" creates a lot of pressure. You're told to get over it, forgive, let go, move on, get closure, think positively, look on the bright side, reinvent yourself, get motivated, start fresh, do things to boost your self-esteem, create lists of how to make your life over, do the same for your kids, focus on making more money, improve your career, meet a new mate and so on. That's quite a lot to think about while your heart is broken and your daily life is turned upside down.

So what do we do about this? As Burkeman has shown, there's not much benefit to New Year's resolutions or another round of goal-setting. So I've decided, instead, that 2013 will be my year of compassion -- compassion for myself and all those around me, as we all contemplate life's undeniable uncertainties and throw out most of the self-help books.

You're welcome to join me in what Burkeman would call the "Stoic" divorce movement and help us push the pendulum back. The perks are you get to feel whatever you're feeling, no matter how dark or depressed that may be. You can be as stuck as you want, and you're allowed to grieve hard and long. You're not required to do anything positive to pull yourself out of it until you feel ready. In fact, if you're feeling paralyzed, like someone just ran a truck over you and your life will never be the same again, that's perfectly acceptable. (That's actually a pretty normal feeling for people going through divorce. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.)

The only rule is this: No playing out your negative emotions in your legal divorce case -- that would be a huge mistake. But other than that, you get a year-long hall pass from being positive and constructive.

And -- dare I even say it -- think on the bright side: if Burkeman is right about even just #8 above, then dwelling on your negative emotions in 2013 is the surest way to get beyond your grief.

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