Positive thinking or the art of fooling oneself?
As the Covid virus wreaked havoc, distributing death and debilitating the economies of countries, there was one unintended side effect. Those who peddled positive thinking and pop psychology found themselves exposed suddenly. Whatever they said or wrote sounded hollow, to say the least. Motivational gurus and godmen and women nearly went into a hiding.
Till then, if someone felt miserable, the traders of positive thinking were able to convince them that somehow, they were responsible for their situation and that they were worrying unnecessarily. ‘Mere worrying is not going to help solve your problem, so stop worrying,’ they advised and it seemed a smart thing to say. But not any longer. The guru or the counsellor could no longer ask their clients to ‘come out of their shell’ but had to observe social distancing themselves, as per government guidelines.
After all, what is counselling but mere sharing of miseries and offering a shoulder to cry when someone needs it the most. The rest – this therapy, that therapy – is all fancy names given to good old listening. In my village, when I was growing up, there was a lady who had nothing to feel happy about and was a bundle of misfortunes. Let us call her Damayanti. So, whenever any lady in the neighbourhood went through a bout of sadness because of some real-life trouble, they would seek out Damayanti and unburden their sad tale on her. She would happily listen to them because of her ability to bring about empathy because of her multiple-misery existence. And, once the visitor gets over her problem of the season, she would stop visiting Damayanti and move on with her life.
As the world emerges out of corona and its restrictions, the pop psychologists and motivational people have re-emerged with their PPTs and aphorisms. There are so many kinds of them that fans of positive psychology among us have a problem of plenty. Some modern ones are titled deliberately to confuse and confound us; neuro-linguistic programming, inner engineering, bio-feedback, you name it and there are people who run courses, mostly online. What fuels the industry is that there are not only people who want to get the benefit of such therapies but hundreds who want to turn into experts and ‘help’ others.
Some of these experts combine spirituality and psychology and get God also into the equation, so that if they fail, then the clients know whom to blame. They go to absurd lengths to convince those who pay that it is all in the mind, and that if they wish for something really intensely, it is bound to happen! To take a simple example, if you stand in a bus stop and tell yourself repeatedly that a bus would arrive right now, it would materialise, regardless of the bus time table. There is this principle of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in positive psychology textbooks but the originators have taken care to explain that it is not magic but simple self-belief making people work towards a goal and then achieving it through hard work.
Faith in oneself does help us achieve things but only to a certain extent. Let us imagine that I am going for an interview. Auto-suggestions and visualisations may give me an edge in putting my best foot forward but if the other candidate’s credentials are far superior, then no amount of positive thinking is going to be a good substitute for that. It was Osho who perhaps first saw through the gimmickry surrounding the positive psychology industry and called its bluff in no uncertain terms. “Positive thinking is the only bullshit philosophy that America has contributed to human thought – nothing else,” he said. “Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and the Christian priest, Vincent Peale – all these people have filled the whole American mind with this absolutely absurd idea of a positive philosophy. And it appeals particulary to mediocre minds…” Perhaps Rajaneesh was exaggerating but he does have a point.
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