Very interesting article in The Telegraph today about the modern scourge that is positive thinking. I am probably going to buy and review this book because Barbara is clearly a woman after my own heart.
Whenever someone says to me “oh, I’m sure it will all turn out for the best” I tend to respond by asking them to exactly explain to me the mechanics of how that will happen.
The look on people’s faces when they realise one of their guiding life principles is no less moronic than believing thunder is God’s way of expressing his displeasure with you is absolutely priceless.
This widespread and unexamined belief is probably one of the most dangerous cognitive flaws afflicting society today because it encourages inaction when action is clearly called for. Climate change, terrorism, the looming food crisis; thinking happy thoughts will not make any of these go away.
Ehrenreich’s analysis of the impact of positive thinking within American corporate culture is particularly interesting. I have just finished up a year working for a leading American broadcaster here in their London office. The shrill, relentless positivity -even in the face of layoffs- was jarring and more than a little creepy to British ears.
It also served to aggravate morale crises that positive thinking is presumably meant to cure. If top-down communications are relentlessly positive, then executive ears are in danger of becoming deaf to business improvement suggestions as these necessarily have to come from examining something the company could clearly be doing better.
This perceived deafness creates a negativity feedback loop at the lower levels because employees do not feel they are being heard or that the company is not interested in changing or improving.
And so the rot sets in from the bottom up despite the fact that everyone along the chain wants exactly the same thing: a better performing business. No individual person is at fault but rather it is faulty thinking that causes the damage.
Here lies the reason why I am so vehemently opposed to positive thinking and yet obviously pro magical thinking. When something bad happens you can either do nothing and wish for a favourable outcome or you can take steps toward improvement based on a frank and bias-free situational analysis.
Often it emerges that the best magical course of action is to do no magic at all.
Often it emerges that the best magical course of action is to do no magic at all. There is a saying that I use regularly in media project management: “battle plans never survive first contact.” Magical thinking -as opposed to positive thinking- is tremendously useful when the universe doesn’t turn out the way you had intended.
This is because we have more experience in setting what are known as ‘soft objectives’; things we want to happen but cannot be quantified with precise metrics; an improved sense of wellbeing, greater career satisfaction and so on.
We do this every time we formulate a precise divinatory question or select a phrase for a sigil or mantra.
The most accurate definition of magic in my opinion is ‘probability enhancement’. You maximise the chances of achieving your soft objectives when you provide the universe with the maximum number of channels to deliver them to you. I call this ‘increasing the chaos’.
Money spells not working? Have you thought about moving somewhere with lower unemployment?
Money spells not working? Have you thought about moving somewhere with lower unemployment? Thinking dispassionately about your situation rather than simply ‘wishing’ for it to get better is the key to increasing the chaos.
So the next time someone tells you to “think positive” about something that hasn’t gone your way, distract them by asking for an explanation for exactly how that will help.
While they are distracted you will be silently setting your own soft objective: quietly and politely getting the hell out of the room.