Is your face sad? Are you missing something to give you purpose? Are you the sort of person who looks at a workplace poster of a skydiver and contemplates taking some accounts home to do at the weekend? If this is you then you might be the target audience for the positive thinking industry. It’s big on ideas, but unlike traditional religions or UFO cults it’s short on actual commitments.
You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage or give up ham, but you do need to promise yourself you’ll consider doing yoga next week, tidy your living room or eat broccoli. Eventually. It’s the philosophical equivalent of setting up a direct debit to hedgehog rescue and then forgetting about it until you accidentally run one of them over. But will it work for me, a man with the temperament of Eeyore and a lifetime of ingrained bad habits? Can I change from the inside, and if I do will I change like a beautiful butterfly or like an unopened container of stale yoghurt?
Share this if U R a strong independent woman who don’t need no man
Being that I’ve blocked anybody who shares inspirational quotes on social media I am seldom exposed to positive thinking. My prevailing mood is like a bad smell in an unventilated toilet, and telling me to think positive is the equivalent of spraying some Glade in the bowl and hoping you won’t asphyxiate before you’re done. I did however venture to the bookshop recently to pick up some classic literature (the autobiography of “Macho Man” Randy Savage) and it was hard not to notice the incredible growth of life manuals, emotional antivirus and high-concept advice about how to become a genius. There’s stacks of smiling skeletal hippy girls asking for £15 to help banish your anxieties, maybe by leaving your office job to make vegan milkshakes in a yurt. Since I last went in there (autobiography of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin) these books have overrun the usual Jersey bestsellers such as Bravo Two Zero and devoured Jilly Cooper’s shelf space like an invasive hornet. Their popularity is dubious though – if these books were any good at improving people’s lives you’d presumably only need the one.
I figured there was space in my reading list (between the biographies of each member of Legion of Doom) so I grabbed a couple of titles by Malcolm Gladwell and a book by somebody called Marie Kondo. I read the last one on the bus, and was bitterly disappointed that she when she talks about “tidying away problems” she isn’t referring to secret ninja techniques for hiding bodies.
This one crazy idea
will change your life
Malcolm Gladwell, for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, is a good example of the sort of person who makes money from positive thinking. He’s a professorish journalist who got rich giving the kind of advice that sounds really inspiring to a bunch of tipsy bosses at an expensive seminar, but just comes across as simplistic and patronising when delivered back to you second hand. He takes a vaguely provocative idea, like saying it still takes a lot of work to be successful at something you’re good at (WOW – mind blown), and spins it out through a series of anecdotes that allegedly prove his point in surprising ways. I found that all they really did was prove the point that you can’t get a meaningful lesson about humanity from a series of neat little stories, and that Malcolm Gladwell is just a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person should sound like. He talks like the president in a US political drama, where the scriptwriters are at pains to make it seem like you need to be really smart to be president. Let’s forget about GW Bush and hope that’s still true by the time this magazine is in print. Reading Gladwell didn’t make me feel positive about myself, just angry I’d paid money to be patronised as if I’m the sort of person who thinks watching QI makes them an intellectual.
Change comes from within, President Assad
The big problem with the positive thinking industry is something that all of the participants in at are trying very hard to obscure – which is that it uses pretend scientific language to sell you ideas that are actually closer to fables, or the religious homilies that lots of these people will happily make fun of. This applies equally to the healthy food bloggers, the relaxation gurus, the tidyers, the Gladwells. 90% of TED talks are no more scientific than one of those Nigerian preachers you find on the upper channels of cable TV, except the advice has switched from telling you you’ll go to heaven if you give up lobster to silicon valley waffle about how you can hack your work-life balance by doing spreadsheets standing up. I’ll tell you something I can hack – it’s you, and it’s with a machete. At least religious people are honest enough to say your ultimate reward won’t be until you get to heaven. Positive thinking gurus get rich by telling you stories, usually rooted in their own fortunate or otherwise unusual lives, that are supposed to apply equally to the dull everyday lives of the rest of us. This universal advice might be true if your audience is entirely composed of anxious, moderately wealthy broadsheet readers, but I’d like to see if anything would happen if we parachuted a bunch of wellness manuals into Aleppo or Haiti. Is it possible to topple Assad with kale and tahini smoothies? Can hurricanes be turned into rainbows with an amusing story about somebody who threw out all their old paperbacks? I suspect not.
We learned a valuable
I will concede it’s probably healthier to have a positive outlook on life, or at least more positive than mine, but you need to retain some perspective and acknowledge that there’s also plenty of real stuff to potentially worry about. Most people in the world have a hard existence, and our own lives might not always be this comfortable. We should be grateful for the immediate life circumstances that give us the time and money to consider reading a book about tidying, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the gathering clouds on the horizon. Climate change, terrorism, the rise of fascism across the globe – I maintain I have more of a right to base my paranoid worldview on this stuff than some TV presenter does to tell me I’d be happier if I ate more spinach. It’s just a shame that nobody’s going to send a ten minute video of me talking about imminent nuclear war round on their work email to inspire the staff, but I think that’s a mistake. “Morning team! Listen to this miserable old man, and just be thankful you haven’t been struck by lightning or bitten by a rabid weasel. THINGS COULD ALWAYS BE WORSE.” If that won’t get you through the day at the office, I don’t know what will.