The Pressures of Positive Thinking


The cult of positive thinking dictates that if you’re unfalteringly optimistic and invest a lot of time in dreaming big, you’ll become rich and successful, thin and beautiful, and attract the best partner in the world. The cult warns that if don’t think optimistically or dream big, the consequences are ghastly. You’ll get nowhere, achieve nothing, attract the worst and become a sorry loser.

There’s so much pressure on us today to be the most positive person in the room – the one who only sees solutions, not problems – that it’s refreshing to talk to Johannesburg-based counsellor, life coach and author Stephanie Vermeulen, who confronts the world’s positive thinking pathology in her latest book, Personal Intelligence: Future Fit Now (EQ+IQ).

She says the idea of a universe that manifests wealth, health, beauty and success out of little more than positive-thinking affirmations and big- dream visualisation techniques is dangerously misleading and has led to billions of people feeling lost, unhappy, unfulfilled and dissatisfied.

Magical thinking, she explains, is more fun than reality; hence books and movies like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (Beyond Words Publishing) have made a fortune from peddling the promise that if we master the law of attraction, everything we desire will be ours.

Vermeulen warns that – particularly during these economy-rattling times – we need to stop being pawns of the positive thinking cult, which is also directly linked to the insidious consumerist trap that makes us poor and the positive thinking gurus rich. They stand on stages and tell us that we should have that mansion, car or holiday because we’re the greatest and we deserve the best. Affordability is a bore in their world, but then they go home – and we get further into debt.

Vermeulen draws on a range of global theorists in her book, including American author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who describes herself as “a myth-buster by trade”. She’s of the opinion that because the positive thinking cult has made narcissism and entitlement normal, it’s responsible for the global credit crunch. She explains that the cult is so pervasive that it is peddled by many religions today, including modern mega-churches which attract big audiences with their positive affirmations that God wants you to be rich. Forget humble and wise.

And when we don’t achieve our big dreams, which most of us don’t, we end up feeling frustrated and disappointed. The positive thinking gurus and preachers don’t help matters because they attribute this to lapsing in our positive thinking devotions.

So what’s the opposite of relentless positive thinking? Happily, it isn’t incessant pessimism and negativity, which is equally tiresome and delusional. Rather, it’s about using our fine brains to advance our knowledge and ability, and using our critical thinking abilities to be more realistic, appreciative and balanced about life.

Realistically, there’s also much that many of us can do to make a good or better living, or pursue a more exciting, fulfilling life. But it all requires hard work, effort, using our wits and being out there in the world. It isn’t achieved by lying on the couch visualising, or attending yet another manifestation workshop.

Vermeulen explains the reason we put so much effort into trying to escape reality is that beneath all the tinsel, we fear our lives are meaningless without magic on our side. Yet, when we start enjoying realit, and the feeling of making a small or big difference to someone else’s life – when we start enjoying time with family and friends and being appreciative of natural gifts like rain – then we start feeling good because reality’s more solid, reliable and substantial than fantasy and insatiable wants.


by Heather Dugmore


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