The Downside of Positive Thinking

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Positive Thinking with smileyCompulsive positivity à la Rhonda Byrne (The Secret) is a big fat downer, argues Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided)

Rhonda Byrne could be called the “queen of positive thinking,” with sales of The Secret (DVD and book), The Power, and now The Magic reaching into the stratosphere, making Byrne one wealthy woman.

The Secret (Simon & Schuster, 2006) started the gravy train rolling. Claiming to have discovered an age-old secret, the law of attraction, it hooked millions with its “yes you can;  think positive and the world is yours” mantra.

The law of attraction says that like attracts like. If you think positive thoughts, you’ll attract positive people, abundance and power. Vice versa for negative thoughts.

The Power (Atria Books, 2010) came along to tell us about the power of love. Each page beautifully ornamented, it exudes love and happiness, success and fulfillment, power and glory. Still aligned with the law of attraction, Byrne emphasizes that love is everything, the be all and end all, the alpha and omega, the one emotion (real or forced) that will get you everything you want.

“Without exception, every person who has a great life used love to achieve it. The power to have all the positive and good things in life is love!” Byrne’s definition of a great life is having “power over your health, your wealth, your career, your relationships, and every area of your life.”

It all starts with imagination, Byrne says. “History has proven that those who dare to imagine the impossible are the ones who break all human limitations.” She says we need to imagine what we want, picture it in our minds in detail; then feel love for what we’re imagining. We must see ourselves mentally receive the item, person or position, pretending that we already have what we desire and “never deviate from that state of being.”

Now we are graced with The Magic (Atria Books, 2012). Byrne has rewritten a passage from the Gospel of Matthew to include gratitude.

“Whoever has gratitude will be given more, and he or she will have an abundance. Whoever does not have gratitude, even what he or she has will be taken from him or her.”

What sets The Magic apart from The Secret and The Power, is the inclusion of 28 days of exercises to get you going on the road to success. You’ll learn to be grateful for what you have now and in the past (12 days), for what you want in the future (10 days), and for your ability to help others, dissolve problems and improve any negative situation (6 days).

If you are a business owner, take note that the value of your business will increase or decrease according to your gratitude. According to Byrne, “It is when business owners stop being grateful and replace gratitude with worry that their business spirals downward.”


Photo by ElaValo

Fantasize or analyze – or both

You can read the gospel according to Rhonda Byrne in two ways. The first way is to pretend the books are fairy tales. Float through the words, letting images spark your imagination or highlight a problem area in your life. Does anything inspire you? Anything you feel like trying? How can you give and receive more love? Can you increase your attitude of gratitude?

The second way is to take a critical look at Byrne’s concepts – and at Byrne herself.

Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks, two experts who were originally part of The Secret film, clashed with Byrne when they asked that two cautions be included. The first one, Gay recounted in a Huffington Post blog, is that “unless you combine the law of attraction with impeccable integrity, you can attract a peck of troubles along with anything positive that comes your way.” The Hendrickses also wanted to point out the “upper limit problem,” which Gay describes as “the tendency to sabotage yourself when you experience a rapid upsurge in success.” Why, you may ask? “If you haven’t built a solid foundation of integrity under you,” Gay explains, “a rapid upturn in your fortunes can bring forth old self-esteem issues that cause you to bring yourself back down to your more familiar lower level of success.”

At one point, the Hendrickses realized that Byrne did not want anything negative in The Secret; it was to be a totally positive cheerleading effort with no pitfalls acknowledged. Asking that their interview footage not be used in the film, the Hendrickses bowed out.

Validating the “peck of troubles” concept, Drew Herriot (director of The Secret) and Dan Hollings (The Secret’s Internet marketing guru) sued Byrne for breach of a verbal contract when she refused to share the mega profits of The Secret (one source suggests $300,000,000 in sales in the first nine months). Although Herriot lost his court case, Hollings settled out of court.

It’s a puzzle: Byrne has refused media requests for interviews about The Power and The Magic. Could it be she doesn’t want to deal with questions about The Secret lawsuits?

Nor has Byrne commented on these lawsuits – at least nothing I’ve been able to find. But in The Power, she claims: “If you feel you have done something that wasn’t right, understand that your realization and acceptance of it is absolution for the law of attraction.” Some would argue that apologizing and making amends would be a more sincere way of redressing a wrong.

Also problematic is that Byrne appears to be using the law of attraction to encourage consumerism. Her emphasis is on having everything you want, rather than focusing on character development or learning to live simply. In The Power, she maintains “there is no lack anywhere in the universe.” Those who worry about vanishing species or diminishing resources are worrying needlessly. According to Byrne, “Quantum physics tell [sic] us there are infinite planet Earths and infinite universes that exist, and we move from one reality of planet Earth and a universe to another, every fraction of a second. This is the real world emerging through science.” This dubious take on quantum physics is Byrne’s proof we can consume all we want.

Bright-Sided says positive thinking not so bright

In Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (Picador, 2009), we learn that respected intellectual Barbara Ehrenreich, an author with 21 books to her credit, had a jarringly personal introduction to the world of positive thinking. During a routine check-up, her doctor found a lump in her breast that proved to be malignant. Ehrenreich descended into a maelstrom of panic, confusion and painful medical procedures. Not trusting alternative medicine, she surrendered to the mainstream modalities of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

To her surprise, Ehrenreich found that “not everyone views the disease with horror and dread.” Instead, positive thinking and acquiring the pink-ribboned accessories were de rigueur. She noted that there was very little anger, no discussion of possible environmental causes and no criticism of painful treatments. “Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world,” Ehrenreich notes, “to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology.”

As an experiment, Ehrenreich posted on a cancer message board under the heading “Angry.” In it, she complained about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies, environmental carcinogens and the “sappy pink ribbons.” She received “mostly a chorus of rebukes.”

Trust Ehrenreich not to swallow this positivity pressure without fighting back. She threw herself into learning the history and ramifications of what she calls the “virus” of positive thinking. The result is an eye-opening treatise that will leave the reader in awe of the damage that can be done by a philosophy that on the surface appears as wholesome as a scrubbed and smiling child.

bubble house article

The housing bubble that crashed the global economy was inflated by positive thinking gone wild, says Barbara Ehrenreich. Photo: R. Gino Santa Maria

From positivity bubbles to empathy deficits

Let’s start with the housing bubble in the U.S. with its resultant stock market crash and worldwide recession. Ehrenreich details how the once sober financial sector hired motivational speakers and coaches to fire up management and employees. Exuberance was rewarded, caution discouraged. One financial expert said, “Anybody who voiced negativity was thrown out.” Some finance companies assumed daredevil debt-to-asset ratios of 30 to 1 in their underwriting of subprime mortgages, confident that positive thinking would keep them afloat.

“Pumped up by paid motivators and divinely inspired CEOs,” says Ehrenreich, “American business entered the midyears of the decade [2000s] at a manic peak of delusional expectations, extending to the highest levels of leadership.” One financial expert told Ehrenreich that the idea that you can control the world with your thoughts went “viral” in corporate America.

Ehrenreich cites political historian Kevin Phillips, author of Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, making a clear connection between positive-thinking euphoria and the subprime mortgage crisis. Philips “indicts prosperity preachers [Joel] Osteen, T.D. James, and Credo Dollar, along with The Secret author Rhonda Byrne.” Another writer blames religious preachers who helped low-income people fool themselves into believing “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and bless me with my first house.”

One danger of compulsive positivity is an “empathy deficit,” according to Ehrenreich. As an example, she quotes Byrne’s callous response to hearing about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 200,000 people: “Citing the law of attraction, [Byrne] stated that disasters like tsunamis can happen only to people who are ‘on the same frequency as the event.’”

One of the dictums of positive thinking is to rid your life of negative people. Even if the other person may be going through a rough patch and need a helping hand – out they go. Or the negativity could be in a child, co-worker or boss – someone difficult to eject, Ehrenreich points out.

She gives very little advice in Bright-Sided, but here, Ehrenreich responds to the delete-negative-people attitude: “The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed.”

On the subject of manipulative positive thinking in general, Ehrenreich offers a down-to-earth alternative: “One could think of other possible means of self-improvement – through education, for example, to acquire new ‘hard’ skills, or by working for social changes that would benefit all.”

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Positive thinking and the law of attraction are valid concepts, and understanding them can enhance our lives. But if the principles are used for selfish reasons or to manipulate others, damage can occur, lives can be hurt.

I agree with Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks about the “upper limit problem” pulling us down when we attempt to force our thoughts to be strictly positive. Results may appear successful at first, but the underlying resistance usually rears up to sabotage us. I think positive thinking efforts should be balanced with an attempt to be squeaky-clean ethical – and to deal with negative feelings and attitudes, rather than just repressing them with forced positivity.

It’s a fascinating juxtaposition: the sweet, delicious fantasy of Rhonda Byrne’s “change your thinking, change your life” versus Barbara Ehrenreich’s sober “face your reality and deal with it.” The Secret/The Power/The Magic – and Bright-Sided; they are worlds apart. Compare and enjoy the contrast.

Anna Olson headshot copyAnna Olson is a Winnipeg freelance writer and editor. Read her online at


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