The Cult of Positivity: If You Dream It, You Can’t Necessarily Become It

Robert Grant lambasts the modern culture of ‘self-help’.

Robert Grant

Staff Writer

Greatness. If you want it badly enough, and are willing to make some changes in your life to cause it to happen, you too can take over the world… or do anything else you really want to do. Yes, you really can have it all. The only things you’ll need to give up are assumptions, expectations, and the comfort zone that holds you back from greatness.

- Chris Guillebeau, Personal Development Blogger.

This is the opening line from one of the most popular Personal Development blogs on the internet. It is called The Art of Non-Conformity and it is full of articles and essays about how you can ‘dominate the world’; this being a metaphor (I hope) for achieving success in some particular area of life. More generally, Personal Development blogs are the latest manifestation of the Self-Help genre; a genre that has been a steadily growing presence in western culture over the past 50 or so years. Originating in America, nearly all book shops now will have a dedicated self-help section (also known as Popular Psychology, or Mind, Body, Spirit), situated somewhere between – and often times overshadowing – the philosophy and psychology sections.

The internet is awash with blogs of a similar nature – a Google search results in 107 million results – each full of straight-to-the-point advice on how to live a fuller, better life, be a greater, wealthier, more successful you, free your mind from conformity and mediocrity and, ultimately, find happiness. Some popular titles of such books and blogs are: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Positive Thinking, The One Minute Millionaire, The Science of Getting Rich, Personal Development for Smart People, Meanttobehappy.com, Personalexcellence.com, to name a few.

While the quality and coherence of the message delivered by each individual book or blog does of course vary, it is worth noting that there are certain identifiable themes that run throughout this genre of self-improvement; themes that warrant some further scrutiny. Certainly, the most central idea present within the genre is that success is a product of a positive attitude and enthusiastic determination. By adopting and maintaining such an attitude you can overcome all obstacles to ‘living your dreams’.

In nearly all the literature can be found the idea that positive thinking and the right attitude are prerequisites to achieving life goals, and the essential ingredient in any kind of success. Pessimism has no place in improving the self, and critics should be avoided at all costs lest they infect you with a negative mind-set; this goes for negativity in the news and media also. If you can’t directly influence it, then you should not waste time and energy worrying about it, they say.

This notion of positivity is closely related to another major theme found within self-improvement: that of absolute personal responsibility. This is the idea that you, and you alone, are the author of your destiny and it is within your own power and control, regardless of circumstances, to make of life what you will. You should never blame others, or contingent circumstances for your failures: that is defeatist, negative and pessimistic, which are three qualities that seem to be anathema to the self-improvement ethos. Self-help gurus and personal developers empower their readers to take control of their lives and make no excuses for failure. In Ireland, this line of thought is represented by Bill Cullen, whose response to a complex and systematic failing of our economic system was to tell people to “get up earlier, work harder, find more leads, do more networking”; an attitude that precludes the possibility of a discussion about systemic inequality, mismanagement, or whatever caused such a dramatic change in our economic culture.

Being a non-conformist is also very important to the Personal Development process. They say that the majority of people, live monotonous, obedient, orthodox lives: get up, rush a highly-processed breakfast, commute to work, spend 8 hours half-assing a job you hate, home, eat a microwave dinner/takeaway as the news tells them what’s wrong with the world, watch some crappy TV shows, then go to bed. To live this life is to be dead. Personal-development offers a way out of the herd, an opportunity to be freed from this slave-like obedience to the norms of the masses. By following some steps readers can think for themselves and control their futures.

So far, this description of self-help and personal development may seem, even if you don’t buy into it, relatively benign. The advice, on the surface, seems well-intentioned and may even encourage people do something worthwhile. However, while it may seem honestly motivated, and, if not intellectually rigorous then at least harmless, there is something more disingenuous about the world of personal development than first meets the eye. It is based on a perception of reality that can lead to a life of self-obsessed illusion, phony friendships and frustration. Here is why.

Personal development plays on the idea that there is enough success, riches and fame for everyone, you just need the right get-up-and-go attitude. Given, however, that all Personal Development offers is a possible attitude-change (as in no specific hard-skills), it makes sense that they would articulate a narrative where attitude is all you need.  However, the idea that with a positive attitude and enough determination, you can achieve anything is just simply not true, nor is it helpful. This message, however, is more than an inaccurate cliché. It is a dangerous mantra to adopt, for it puts people on a path to inevitable frustration.

It does this by robbing the individual of the possibility of having any organic and genuine sense of positive feeling. Instead, it becomes your job, a burden: always be positive. You maintain positivity in the hopes that success will follow. That is, underlying this mind-set is a real feeling of hope; hope that it will “work”, that this positivity will pay off. And as this hope builds and the results don’t appear, it can become extremely difficult to know how to deal with failure.

Look at The X Factor. This program, in the guise of a search for talent, shows people that, to begin with, are overflowing with positivity, enthusiasm and belief. Yet, as soon as they get kicked off, or criticized, they collapse hysterically and scatter their dignity all over the air waves. They subscribe to the following line of reasoning: “I’ve wanted this for so long and I’ve worked really hard. Therefore, I deserve it.” ‘Desire’ becomes synonymous with ‘deserve’. But wanting something really bad, and trying to get it, is no guarantee that you are owed success. There is nothing wrong with, or to fear in, genuinely trying your best, while knowing that failure is a possibility and really not the end of the world.

This is one side of the positive thinking/personal responsibility picture. However, just as influential within Personal Development is a refusal to engage with anything or anyone that seems negative. I have read blogs that explicitly advise people to “only surround yourself with people who inspire you”. That is, avoid anyone, friends or family, who seems critical and/or negative of your desire to be all you can be. This is severely lacking in any kind of understanding of what a friend should be. It is, simply put, using others for your own gain, or as philosopher Immanuel Kant would put it, using people only as a means to an end. Surely a sense of humour, sincerity and kindness are valuable attributes in a friend, regardless of how inspiring or useful they are.

Interestingly, this anti-negative stance also doubles as a useful tool for disregarding critics and making it difficult to reject the teachings once you’ve made a commitment to them. In order to move past the superficial philosophy of Personal Development, you first need to examine and criticize it, but to do so would be to break the cardinal rule: be positive. This leads to a situation – that can be confirmed by going to any PD blog and scanning the comments – where bloggers become surrounded by fawning, sycophantic yay-sayers whose vocabulary is predominantly composed of flattering superlatives: awesome, kick-ass, amazing, inspiring, and so on. Surely it is better to surround yourself with critical and challenging people who have different perspectives than people who offer unconditional affirmation.

Many blogs strongly play to the idea that personal development is not for everyone. Here is a quote from The Art of Non-Conformity: “I should warn you now that this report is not for everyone.  In fact, it’s probably not for most people. Instead of writing for the general public, I spent about 35 hours writing these pages for a small minority of people interested in living life on their own terms”. He goes on to describe the “lonely road for those of us who choose to be remarkable. That path [of convention] is paved with safe lives, middle of the road monotony, and little chance of failure. But where’s the fun in being like everyone else?”

This kind of talk is nothing more than a marketing tool, designed to manipulate people by preying on their desire to seem different from, and smarter than, the ‘crowd’. It is exactly what ads for cars, runners, perfumes, aftershave, etc, do. Who wants to seem safe, mediocre, and unremarkable? Plus, do you think these bloggers will turn away subscribers if they become too main-stream? I doubt it, since they measure their success by how popular their blog is. It reminds me of Lyle Lanley, the Monorail salesman in The Simpsons, who says, in a last-ditch effort to dupe Springfield, “Aw no, it’s not for you, it’s more of a Shelbyville idea”. To which Mayor Quimby responds: “Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. You just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!”.

Being different for the sake of being different is as stupid as imitation for its own sake. Where your tastes lie with respect to the majority is certainly an interesting factor to take account of, but it should not form the basis for a decision. It is akin to strains of feminism that said it was ok to choose your own lifestyle, as long as that choice isn’t being a house-wife. Personal Development preaches about individual decision making and the pursuit of your own truth, but openly and explicitly vilifies the individual whose life’s journey happens to take the conventional path.

By creating a narrative of Us Vs Them, Personal Development fosters a divisive atmosphere: the free versus the enslaved. Again, things are just not that simple. There are many factors that go into why people end up where they are, not all of which are laziness and non-thinking. If someone gets into personal development and quits their 9-5, to travel the world, the very best of luck to you, but there is no need to insult millions of people who don’t make that choice while you do it by referring to them as “zombies”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with becoming a vegan or running a marathon, but these are just arbitrary decisions people make every day. Do a sky-dive, don’t do a sky dive. Drink alcohol, don’t drink alcohol. Learn a language, don’t learn a language. These are normal, natural choices, not life-defining, earth-shattering, momentous acts of courage.

Regardless of the criticisms I have given, however, Personal Development and Self Help remain extremely popular, with literally millions of followers. It is of course possible I just don’t get it and am missing out. But the question remains: why do so many people, from all different walks of life, buy into it?

Personal Development and Self Help offer a convenient, easy, and well-marketed answer to a very deep and genuine philosophical crisis human beings have been living through more or less since the Middle Ages; one that has grown ever more pressing with time. It is really an existentialist crisis that concerns the fundamental question: What should we do with our lives?

The psychologist and social theorist, Erich Fromm – in the tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre – calls this crisis the “fear of freedom”. Fromm argues that the history of modern Europe and America is defined by its effort to gain freedom from the political, economic and spiritual shackles that traditionally bound humans. Since the Renaissance, one tie after another was severed – humans had overthrown the domination of the Church and the domination of the absolutist monarchy state. In their place, the principles of economic liberalism, political democracy, and religious autonomy gave expression to the longing for freedom and brought mankind closer to its realization. This kind of abolition of external domination seemed to be a great victory for personal freedom.

However, while such freedoms resulted in the possibility for more individual expression and autonomy, they also broke the ties that gave people security and meaning; ties that gave people feelings of belonging and of being rooted somewhere: the membership of a primitive man with his clan, the medieval man with his church and so on. So while humanity, at least in Europe and America, has become freer in this sense, this freedom brings with it a new challenge: to orient and root oneself in the world, to find security and meaning without external authority. We now have choice: the choice to live life in whatever way we like. This is a daunting task we all face. And when we realize the size of the universe and of the strength of the forces that shape our world – the unpredictable markets, constant war, environmental disasters – it can lead to feelings of powerlessness, isolation and anxiety. Not to mention the feelings of isolation created by modern consumerism and advertising that, as Banksy put it, makes us feel “that all the fun is happening somewhere else.”

It is this sense of anxiety that Self-help and Personal Development movements exploit. In the face of such powerlessness and insignificance, they sell omnipotence and domination; complete control of your destiny. And if you disagree, or demand more than “7 steps to success” you are ostracised as a negative critic. Self help is popular because it manipulates this fear of freedom and does so with brightly coloured, user friendly blogs and a cheery enthusiastic and attractive smile. But rather than hoping to find answers in Personal Development, it should only be a starting place.

To ask questions about how to live life, to question whether you should be doing what you are doing, is indeed admirable. But to conclude that a positive attitude can solve all problems is naive and denies the possibility to enact change, when necessary, on your circumstances. Aristotle said:

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy and noble”.

The same goes for having a positive attitude, or any state of mind, for that matter: the skill in life is to know when and where they are appropriate.

  • http://greatpilatesnow.com Judith

    Robert,

    Perception is everything.

    Whatever perceptive stance or vibration you choose is what you will see. Then the law of attraction creates more of it.

    I wish you the very best this life has!

    Judy

    • Rob Grant

      What is a perceptive stance? And what do you mean by vibration?

      • SammieK

        Judith is pulling from the Secret. If you think something will happen, it will magically “manifest” itself. And vibration is a pseudo-science term Chopra’s sycophants and the like use to derail conversations and seem mystic and insightful.

    • SammieK

      Way to parrot the same idiocy the article attacks

    • sumi

      Please read the article again, see if it will change your view….unless you are a magician. Good luck to you.

  • Paddy

    I agree with a lot of the points in this article. However, it made me think that I’m not a special person, that I won’t have a huge impact on the world, and therefore my existence is futile. This got me really down. Thankfully, I then listened R. Kelly’s “I believe I can fly” and now I’m looking forward to scoring the winning goal at Euro 2012 and being paraded around the pitch on the shoulders of Kevin Kilbane and John O’Shea. It’s gonna be a good Summer

    • Rob Grant

      that is exactly my point.

  • http://www.thedaleypost.com Frank Daley

    Dear Robert Grant:

    Excellent piece!
    Lots of luck convincing the majority of people seeking self-help!

    Self-help–a contradiction in terms!
    George Carlin said there was no such thing as self-help. If you get help from somebody else it is not from yourself and if you do it yourself you didn’t need the help!

    I love that!

    I’m starting a new company called Self-Knowledge College (site under construction) so I’m painfully aware of your subject matter.
    I concur with your observations.

    My premise is that without self-knowledge three bad things will happen to you: you will not be in the right line of work; you will not be with the right person ad you will not be happy.
    You won’t be happy, of course, because of the first two.

    But this has very little to do with dreaming of success however you define it, (and it can’t be defined by the Donald Trump/Paris Hilton school of success–that way lies failure).

    Whatever it is called, self-help, personal development, positive psychology, it is a human need and requirement but there’s no sense fooling yourself about it.

    It takes work to know yourself and courage and introspection and most people don’t have the stomach for it.
    Too bad, because it isn’t impossible nor should it take your whole life.

    My new blog, The Daley Post, (above) attempts to
    assist.
    Love to chat with you!

  • Duncan

    I liked the way you cribbed from Barbara Ehrenreich without mentioning her.

  • Rob Grant

    Judith: what do you mean by vibrations?

    Paddy: do i know you? You seem hilarious.

    Frank: thanks for the comments. Drop me a line if you like!

  • Ryan

    Lampooning the self-help industry is easy – there are plenty of ridiculous targets to chose from – but the arguments here are lazy. Critical thinking and pessimism are in no way the same thing. Also, it is not legitimate to simply assert that a positive outlook “denies the possibility to enact change”. A positive outlook is a necessary element of the motivation to change – why would you go to the effort of changing something if you didn’t believe that it would improve?

  • Rob Grant

    Duncan: I did read her book. I read many. I have a list of footnotes and references in the original word document. I can send it on if you like.

    Ryan: I never argued that a positive attitude is a bad thing intrinsically. Just that it is difficult to maintain it all the time and takes some judgement to know when its appropriate. Also, it is more that the idea of absolute personal responsibility – you are totally responsible for your position in life – that can discourage enacting change. For example, if you take Bill Cullen’s advice to just ‘work harder’ if you become unemployed, it may mean you are less likely to challenge a system that might be unfair. I guess I could have been more clear about that in the conclusion.

  • Jack S

    I think what the author was arguing against was not ‘a positive attitude’ but a blind, enforced positivity. This kind of relentless cheeriness creates innumerable problems, from stifling proper emotional range to creating an environment in which critical thinking and sober analysis is discouraged.

    A good example of this is the run up to the 2003 Iraq War. The American and British Governments, as well as their willing allies in the media, pushed a vision of the post-war situation based on the most sunny of scenarios. Serious questions of troop numbers, sectarian divisions, army disestablishment, de-Baathification and others were brushed aside in favour of the idea that the Coalition would be viewed as ‘liberators’. This is not merely a glib comparison, as Bush was an avowed ‘positive thinker’ who discouraged the hard-headed analytical thinking that came to his desk. For a better explanation, see Thomas E. Ricks’ ‘Fiasco:The American Military Adventure in Iraq’.

  • Veronica

    Very good article. I’ve been following Chris’ “Art of Non-Conformity” website for several months now, mainly because I wish I could fly all over the world like he does (likely won’t happen; I’m much older than Chris and have the job/kids/spouse life going on). Still something about the blog never did sit quite right with me; I knew the site was his ‘job’ and it had marketing angles, but I think you hit the nail on the head with this article. I’d be interested to find out where Chris’ blog ends up a few years from now (then again, he’ll probably be quite rich and living the perfect life by then…sigh).

    • Rob Grant

      Thank you veronica – interested to see what you think of that blog!

  • http://happiness-is-the-natural-state.blogspot.com Ricky Ferdon

    The term “self-help” is true to the extent that we CAN help ourselves. And the promoters agree, yet on the basis that we “need” their plan or blueprint to be able to perform such a task. Tisk, tisk, tisk. We are born enabled, fully capable and self-contained. The true self-help prophet would offer to people the ability to see this without charge. Dr. Wayne Dyer said this about manifesting: “You don’t manifest what you want, you manifest what you are.” Namaste!

  • http://www.thecatalanway.blogspot.com kate wilson

    Hi I found this through a link at Niall Doherty’s blog.
    I was glad to read your thoughts as they actually addressed something I was thinking about this morning. I have found a lot of ‘self help’ books and more recently, blogs very useful. I tend to pick and chose which parts to incorporate into my life and which parts to ignore.
    Just as you rightly say that all those who chose to stay at home and carry on working 9-5 are not ‘zombies’, it is also true that all those who read these books and blogs are not naive positivity junkies. (I credit the majority of people with more intelligence.) It did slightly come across that way but I am sure it was more for the sake of the argument that you decided not to describe what is useful in this self help movement.
    I believe that we all need to think more and reflect more and make informed choices from what is available. There have always been people who jump on the latest fad and promote it with silly grins on their faces….until it disappoints and then they find another or become depressed and cynical.

    But the truth is that we do have more personal power to chose than we believe. Many people suffer from feeling inadequate,ineffective and powerless – what harm can it do to believe a little more in your own possibilities? What book/blog suggests that by changing our attitudes we can take over the world? Isn’t that delusional behaviour?

    What I liked in your piece was the part about the deep human existentialist questioning of ‘Why am I/are we here? What is the meaning of my/our life?’

    I agree that as we have more leisure and time and freedom to chose, we have more opportunity to look at this question and the self help industry is part of the quest. But does that mean it is self serving and manipulative? I don’t think so. Some parts yes, as in all realms of this world there are always those who want money and power from abusing other peoples weaknesses.

    Is it a bit like religion? We can find gems in there but need to be aware of the dangers.

    anyway, I welcome the chance to think these thoughts this morning so thank you for taking the trouble to write down yours

    best wishes

    Kate

    • http://www.redroom.com/member/cath4608 Catherine Nagle

      Hi Kate,

      I enjoyed reading your reply.

      I believe that self-help with Religion; studied, practiced, experienced, is our greatest and only hope for a meaningful abundant life, whatever we choose. Years of study, without the actual experience isn’t enough. Our greatest teachers are those who have come through it to the other side of joy. Those who have come through while holding up another.

      Robert, Thank you very much for sharing. I truly enjoyed your reflections!

  • Rob Grant

    I completely agree that I should have been more clear about stating that I do not think positive thinking is a bad thing, whatsoever. A positive attitude can mean many things to different people, and as I say in the conclusion, it’s about knowing when it is appropriate.

    Also, I suppose I defined ‘positivity’ narrowly for the purposes of my argument. While this is somewhat unfair, it is also somewhat necessary when you are limited to 2000 words or so.

    Furthermore, I should have stressed even more than I did that there are vast differences between certain books and blogs within the self-help/personal development genre, and some are more worthwhile than others. Again, I just tried to draw out a couple of themes that can be harmful and misleading and caution against blind adherence. Thank you for the comments!

    • Michael John Dennis

      In my own life (I’m a 41 years old Irish gay man raised a Catholic in Ireland, now living in the UK) and I got misled by a lot of these “positive thinking” books which were directly at odds with my own Catholic Social Teaching and were therefore deeply immoral, misleading and essentially dishonest – I left one highly secure job after 13 years, in direct disobedience of my family’s wishes, as well as coming out as gay, when none of these things were right for me at the time, as a direct result of reading these books, during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, because of these kinds of books, which do not accept the reality that a person has to live with on a daily basis, such as directly going from pushing trollies in a supermarket to either selling stuff online (via pyramid selling schemes and/or computer courses) or directly into a long haul airline pilot/cabin crew job role, when these things are simply not possible, failing to take account for reality – to conform and to have humility is to be positive “dont be a trail-blazer” and reject “negative” as “bullying” as so often preached in these books – If the kind of (free advice, given in love) common sense that family and friends and even sound moral Church teachings that one is taught previously is ignored after reading these books (and blogs) that are charged for, it is purely that these people want to make money out of selling people down the garden path – because of these books, my relationships with my family was damaged because I came out as gay and as a result I ended up homeless in Manchester & I still work on trollies in a Manchester Supermarket since 2002 – time to come back to Ireland, start going back to Mass with my family & give up being gay methinks

  • Jneuf

    Nice article, Rob. Reflecting on the conditions of appropriatenes of positivity (or negativity–or nearly any evaluative/affective response) is extremely useful. Heidi Grant Halvorson recently published a book, Succeed, that criticizes the self-help crowd for not bothering to support many of their recommendations with anything like psychologically plausible reasons. By that she means reasons provided by actual research in social psychology on how we learn, succeed, help ourselves, etc.

    It’s pretty refreshing to read a well-written, well-reasoned, empirically based self-help book and blog (http://www.heidigranthalvorson.com/).

  • http://www.popphilosophers.blogspot.co.uk Tom B

    Came here from Leiter. Really enjoyed this article, it’s not often that the self-help industry is surveyed with such a lucid critical eye. The very fact that self-help manuals are shelved in Waterstones alongside Russell and Nietzsche shows that we need more articles like this out there!

  • Steve

    Lots of good thoughts here. I think in order for you to “get it” (quoting you there, not talking down), I think you’d have to stop talking about “personal development” like it’s all one thing and start looking at the finer points made by a given person in a given sentence. For instance, one of the big problems I’ve encountered many times in that circle is that they “teach you how to succeed”. “Succeed” is such a vague, subjective term that saying it is the same as saying nothing, unless you specifically define it somewhere else. The things you take issue with about “personal development” I would categorize under “idiocy”. Google a guy named Steve Andreas, he’s a practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, something that undeservingly has the stain of shallow self-help on it. His thinking on helping people is clear as can be, and–leading by example–he demonstrates the difference between actually making your life better, and delegating thinking to someone else.

  • Rob Grant

    Jneuf – thank you for the comment. I will be sure to check out Heidi Grant Halvorson. Of course I agree that there are many variations on self help, and the concept is not inherently mistaken. I suppose I just saw certain dominant themes that were maybe misleading. Thanks again.

  • Rob Grant

    Tom B – I appreciate the comment. I just checked out your blog too. Very interesting material for anyone seeking an intro to philosophical issues. I might be in touch with you again some time!

    • http://www.popphilosophers.blogspot.co.uk Tom B

      Rob – I really appreciate that, thanks. I’ll be here.

  • Rob Grant

    Steve – I am in agreement that there is a huge amount of variation within personal development and self help and often the good work gets lost in the shadows of that which is marketed best (or makes it on to Oprah). I tried to make clear that I was merely drawing out a few particular themes that are common to a lot of self help and that these themes are misleading. As for NLP – I only know of it in association with Tony Robbins, but I will check out Steve Andreas. Thanks again.

  • http://dubitodeus.wordpress.com/ Robert

    I really enjoyed reading this; it’s not a topic I’ve seen addressed too often.

    • Rob Grant

      Cheers, Robert. Had a look at your blog too – makes me miss logic class.

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  • Mandy Cat

    James Thurber made these same points more than 50 years ago, only more amusingly, in “Let Your Mind Alone.”

    • Rob Grant

      Thanks Mandy – I wish I had come across that essay before I wrote this.

  • Judith

    Great article, and well stated.

  • dSmith

    I thought about trying positive thinking, but then I figured oh, what’s the use?

  • Patrick

    Some self-help is just insulting, like The Secret. Not only does it lack value, I think it actually harms people. Other self-help, more pragmatic self-help, like specific steps or actions to sustain weight loss, overcome addictions, etc. is in my view a good thing. When self-help goes beyond the pragmatic into more global sentiments about the universe, love, positive attitudes, it gets lost, but then so does everyone who ventures into such territory. Good self-help avoids metaphysical statements and is narrowly focused on specific steps to address a limited problem. Thank you for your article.

  • George Arndt

    The big problem is the narcissism that the self-help movement encourages. Some degree of self-worth is positive and of course we need to take responsibility for our actions. But to literally believe that your destiny is solely in your own hands is pretty absurd. Worse yet, it implies that if a person fails, than they have only them self to blame. (there might be instances where this is true, but not in most cases, it could be argued that it isn’t)

  • http://www.fleshandgrass.com LibbyC

    If life were a pure meritocracy and if there were no nepotism, office politics, and the like, self-help would make sense. But life is far from a meritocracy, and the self-help movement cannot address situations like bumbling bosses, competent people replaced with incompetent people, discrimination against minorities, etc. Being the smartest person in the room or having the most contacts, etc. guarantees nothing. The only way to be “successful” is to have meaningful relationships and a rich inner life that includes a moral center and the urge to improve the world and relieve suffering.

  • Trina

    I agree with George Arndt 100%. The one thing I felt was lacking in this article was info about how this stuff causes a distinct lack of social solidarity and encourages insular behavior and victim-blaming. And who would benefit from a wide-spread meme of this sort? Think about it, and ask yourself, dear positive thinker… Which Side Are You On?

  • Rob Grant

    Thank you for the comments! Check out another article I wrote about the modern influence of consumerism. http://www.universitytimes.ie/?p=7904

  • http://www.PeacefulProductivityNow.com Curtis G. Schmitt

    I think this article makes some good points about what we might call “absolute positive thinking.” That, I agree, is shallow and not helpful. But ultimately, this article is limited by emphasizing more the critique of a philosophy than by asserting a philosophy of it’s own. An instructive analogy might be that of a film critic vs. a filmmaker. The critics ability to make an impact is limited in that he can only react to other people’s films, whereas a filmmaker can respond to films that have come before, and also move the medium forward through his creations.

    Finally, let me articulate something that I discuss in my book, Peaceful Productivity Now. Personal responsibility is not absolute, but it’s typically more powerful than the average person is ready to accept. There are two dimensions to it: our ability to respond to situations and influence/change them; and our ability to respond to our internal representation of those situations. The former can be quite limited. The latter, however, offers great possibilities for most of us. We can choose the feelings we have and the thoughts we think to a much greater degree than most of us are aware. This may not make any difference to the facts of the external situation, but it can most certainly change the quality of how we experience a given situation.

    • Rob Grant

      Hi Curtis, thank you for the comments. I have to disagree with the appropriateness of your analogy between the film critic and film maker.

      This is just ONE article, that tries to examine some concepts found in self help. The reason for this examination is in order to understand them better, so that when people do attempt to make some changes, they can do so in a more informed manner. It is not like I have written many criticisms while neglecting to offer solutions, like a film critic may.

      Also, very interestingly, you seem to disregard what the article says purely because it is critical or ‘negative’, and not ‘positive’. This, as I outline in the article, is what many of those involved in self-help (as you are) do in order to avoid dealing with the real underlying issues.

  • http://www.AllThingsPrivatePractice.com Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC

    Robert, thank you for writing this post. You offer critiques of self help that I certainly agree with. However, the one that I believe you did not address is that in the world of self help meritocracy is most often implied.

    In truth, hard work and a positive attitude are not enough for many to get ahead – much less significantly change their circumstances. Without a level playing field and equal resources for all, it really is just magical thinking to believe that that positive attitude and hard work are enough.

    By the way, I should say that I am a big fan of Chris’ blog, “The Art of Nonconformity.” Glad to see that you follow him, too!

  • Johnnie G

    Good work. Well argued.Looking forward to the next one

  • Gisela

    Hey Rob,

    I was on your page earlier and saw the link to your article. It’s very interesting and your points are well-argued. It has provoked a good discussion as well.

    I wondered if you have come across Maureen Gaffney’s work on positivity, in particular her most recent book, ‘Flourishing’? I haven’t read it yet but I saw her speak a few weeks ago and I was quite impressed.

    She is a clinical psychologist and seems, to my mind, to take a more pragmatic approach to positive thought and mood management. She argues that negative thought can be useful, but that it is more powerful than positive thought, and so must be carefully balanced.

    In fact, she speaks of a ratio of 3:1 for positive to negative thought, which is necessary to keep you healthy. A ratio of 5:1 allows you to ‘flourish’, while if you jump up to 11:1, this may mean you are in denial or attempting to avoid a serious problem.

    I just googled her to make sure I had the ratios right and came across this article which is a good taster: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/magazine/2011/1105/1224306893017.html

    Anyway, you wrote a really interesting article which gives pause for thought. Good work!

  • Austin-Lehman Adventures

    Maybe not everything in the world can be accomplished with positivity. But you can be a much more happy and accepting person by staying positive, and you will take some downfalls with more grace that way. All you can do in life is strive for the goals you set. Just keep working hard and keep the positive attitude, you may never move mountains or cure a deadly disease but you will be a positive impact on the world and the people lucky enough to be in your presence.