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The Perils of Positive Thinking



Pages In This Entry:

  1. The Perils of Positive Thinking
  2. How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

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How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America

The following is a promotional announcement for a book that, while written from a secular perspective, deals with a topic that is also addressed in many entries throughout the Apologetics Index web site: positive thinking.

The book is not an attack on joy, happiness, or a sunny personality, but rather on what the author refers to as the “inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle” of:

  • life coaches who take your money in exchange for affirmations
  • preachers who tell you that God wants you to have a car, house or boat you can’t afford
  • the idea that mere concentrated desire for an object or outcome will bring you the wealth or happiness of your dreams

Indeed many of the preachers, televangelists and ministry leaders listed on this web site practice a 'Christianized' version of positive thinking.

Think, for instance, of the syrupy, truth-decaying messages of Robert Schuller -- referred to as "the evangelist without a gospel" because he put his 'possibility thinking' over a clear presentation of the Christian gospel.

Or take Joel Osteen, who preaches the gospel of optimism, and only optimism -- which has Christians refer to his message as 'Christianity Lite.' His who approach can be summed up as follows: "Don't worry. Be Happy." But by leaving lots of Bible teachings untouched, Osteen is not preparing his flock for the harsh realities of life. It's all good and well to be happy when you've got a healthy body, a roof over your head, and food on your plate -- but positive thinking, the kind that tries hard to create something out of nothing, falls flat when that's all you know to do if and when the bad times arrive.

Then there are folks like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn and others -- relentless promoters of the so-called Prosperity Gospel -- a scam that has people convinced God will make them rich if only they donate -- 'in faith' -- often more than they can really afford to whichever evangelist happens to teach them about this 'miracle.'

Some of them suggest that not just financial prosperity can result from this kind of giving, but physical and/or psychological healing as well. That is, as long as you give -- and think -- the right way: with a firm believe in something called 'Positive Confession.' Believers in this form of positive thinking have been told that

a) since God created things by speaking them into existence, and
b) since Christians are referred to as children of God (and thus 'little gods'),
c) they, too, should create things (mostly health and wealth) by speaking them into existence.

And it's imperative that you utter only positive 'confessions.' After all, if you say something like, "I've got such a headache" you are actually making things worse for yourself, since you are speaking negative things into existence.

It's not just Christians who fall for that kind of nonsense. Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil and many other motivational speakers, self-help teachers and success coaches have drilled the message into the masses.

Have you ever been asked to think of your layoff, cancer, or foreclosure as an “opportunity”?

Americans are an upbeat and optimistic people. We smile and greet each other on the street and perpetuate the image of a gregarious and positive nation to the world. We all want to embrace this positive spirit—cheerfulness and good humor—especially in times like these: with unemployment on the rise, and foreclosures forcing thousands of Americans out of their homes, the need and desire for good news is undeniable. But America has embarked on an unwholesome love affair with Positive Thinking—meaning the belief system that refuses to consider the problems at hand; a conviction that by merely thinking positively and having a positive attitude, you can get the things that you want; that by focusing on the good, the bad will cease to exist. Avoiding reality, as recent history has shown, can be disastrous.

In a brilliant and savagely funny attack on the perils of Positive Thinking, BRIGHT-SIDED: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined Americaoffsite (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company; on sale: October 13, 2009), Barbara Ehrenreich reveals how this insidious school of thought has infiltrated every part of American culture and exposes the downside of always and only seeing the bright side.

    Here are some of the myths Ehrenreich exposes and truths she reveals:

  • the pseudoscientific link between positive attitude and healing
  • how the relentless push for patients to maintain a positive attitude is often psychologically devastating
  • the shocking links between prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar and the mortgage crisis
  • the refusal of the business community to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—and the groundless optimism of CEOs have replaced risk analysis as the basis for company decisions

Ehrenreich brilliantly sums up our need to embrace realism—or what psychologist Julie Norem calls “defensive pessimism”—from the battlefield to the bedroom:

  • A chief of state does not want to hear a general in the field say that he “hopes” to win tomorrow’s battle or that he’s “visualizing victory.”
  • You may try to project a thoroughly “positive” outlook in order to attract a potential boyfriend, but you are also advised to Google him.
  • Parents might want to be “positive” by advertising a trip to the pediatrician as an opportunity to play with the cool toys in the waiting room rather than an occasion for a painful shot, but they dare not risk assuming that the sudden quiet from the toddlers’ room means they are studying Baby Einstein.

BRIGHT-SIDED is Ehrenreich at the top of her myth-busting game. In this bold, incisive, and often funny attack on the myriad ways that Positive Thinking has been used to obscure the truth, Ehrenreich reveals how damaging that has been to the American well-being. And to those millions of individual Americans who have been sold a bill of goods in the name of Positive Thinking, this book will be a lasting and welcome gift.

• Buy Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Read the introduction to Bright-sided.

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This post was last updated: Oct. 11, 2009