[FoRK] The Perils of Positive Thinking

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Mon Jun 14 12:57:18 PDT 2010

On 6/14/10 11:13 AM, Jeff Bone wrote:
> (For Stephen... ;-)

Well, Thanks.
>    http://www.unlimitedmagazine.com/2010/06/the-perils-of-positive-thinking/

He gets right the insidious and fatal linking of religion and 
religious-like thought to self-help programs.  "The Secret" is a 
particularly bad instance: Full of magical thinking...

He's also right in pointing out that improvement in an isolated aspect, 
"sculpted abs, nicer clothes, or more personal wealth", isn't a path to 

He seems to be endorsing relationships as being the one and only key here:
" 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.”"

That is far too narrow-minded and likely to be a disaster for people 
surrounded by dysfunctional family and friends.  It is a key component, 
and when you can make it work, it is very helpful.

Self-awareness *is* the key: " 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 

However, you have to differentiate between tastes and quirks that don't 
matter and should be indulged somewhat and not fought against too much 
vs. those habits or skill gaps that should be addressed.  It is not a 
quirk of personality that you smoke or are an alcoholic or are otherwise 
self-destructive, boring to yourself, and stagnant.

This is pure BS for the most part:
" 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.”"

That is a major overgeneralization and one that seems mostly wrong.  
Which traditional cultures is he talking about?  Feudal kingdoms?  
Romans?  Warrior tribes?  Several thousand years of Chinese culture?  
Our natural instincts are not so specific: we are highly adaptable (and 
corruptable) in our focus, thinking, and general mental model of the 
world.  As I pointed out recently, our modern thinking likely has little 
resemblance to much of historical humanity which had much more to do 
with what we could think of as mental illness than whether people were 
"me focused".

And so he finds an excuse to absolve himself for any need for improvement:

" 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...

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."

Certainly you should accept what you cannot or are not willing to 
change.  However, you should not give up before you even try.  It is not 
about achieving perfection, it is about continuous improvement.  As a 
competitive runner, for instance, you may think once in a while: I want 
to run a 4 minute mile someday. But day to day, you focus on getting a 
couple seconds faster or a quantum more comfortable with what you can 
already do or getting over that injury to be back where you were.  The 
goal just gives you a direction, not something to be disappointed in not 
reaching.  A well-rounded person will seldom be the best at anything, 
except perhaps in being well-rounded in some impossible to really 
compare way.  Being the best takes total commitment and obsession and 
leads to a possibly-grotesque life.  It is a worthy goal sometimes, but 
not something that is likely to be fully-formed happiness.  (I got down 
to 4:30.  I'm back down to something under 6:00 for more than a mile now 
if I knock myself out, from as much as 9:00 before my heart repair.  And 
I've hit a pace of 5:20 for a little while again.  But it takes days to 
recover, since I weigh about 50-60 pounds more than I did.  I'm happy 
enough about that whole segment of my life.  I'm glad I didn't choose to 
pursue it single-mindedly.  I would have done well (the 4:30 was when I 
was 16), but I would have traded far too much as it turns out as my life 
has been very rich instead.)

Happiness has many aspects and is tied to various types of maturity and 
levels & breadth of understanding.  My complete take on it will have to 
wait for another time.  I have had a strong impulse to write something 
that rebuts and reworks one or more existing self-help book ("Purpose 
Driven Life" et al) so that it is secular, sane, scientific, and 
actually helpful.  Don't know if I have the chops for that really, 
however I can certainly point out most of the flaws in existing books.

A preview: One component of happiness is getting positive, pleasant, and 
interesting results from our environment and activities.  A key 
component of overall "happiness capacity" is cultivating experiencing 
happiness in as many ways as possible which requires both understanding 
and becoming competent in a range of topics.  Frequently, people, 
especially young people, will lock onto a very small number of ways of 
experiencing positive feelings.  Often, in current society, some of 
these popular ways will be self-limiting: They are too repetitive to be 
interesting long-term and are simultaneously more damaging the more they 
are pursued.  By attentional neglect (the first thing that works for 
them blocks out everything else for a while) and failure to establish 
competency or understanding along with the appropriate mental 
connections, they will become too narrow tracked in what they can 
enjoy.  Examples can be socializing, drinking+socializing, sports (both 
having it as the main positive feelings source and as something 
neglected because you didn't positive results fast enough), etc.  
Various forms of appreciation for arts, "little things", 
people-watching, working with children, etc. can all be positive 
aspects.  Explicitly pursuing many tracks of "life appreciation" in 
directions that have a lot of long-term headroom is a good strategy.  
Not all at once, I favor the model of: Deep dive to competency for one 
thing (or few things) at a time, then parallel maintenance and growth in 
many things in parallel.

There is a complement to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that could be 
constructed, perhaps on an individual basis through my patent-pending 
Happiness Hierarchy process ( ;-) ), that could be interesting.  (It's 
probably not a hierarchy per se.)  Intertwined with this are the need 
for, and rationale behind goals and process-oriented effects like flow.

> jb
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